Penderecki String Quartet & Guests Concert @ WMCT reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Thursday, March 25, Walter Hall, Toronto.

Glenn Buhr’s String Quartet No.4 (The Seasons), commissioned by The Women’s Musical Club of Toronto for its 112th season, was premièred this afternoon by the Penderecki String Quartet. This single-movement work, formed as an introduction followed by theme and variations, is inspired the shifting densities of bird populations during the flow of the seasons, and by the energies that notion suggests.

The opening sequences are slow, dissonant—the initial restlessness of stiff joints, “taut, tentative feet” shuffling towards rhythmic expression that is discovering how to flow like little rippling sonic waves where bits of melody swirl in a dance that hints at counterpoint. A pizzicato marks the shift to a rhythmic outpouring of wistful variations distinguished by Jacob Braun who makes his cello wail like a bowed saw or an ondes martenot. The variations continue to wax and wane more strongly, and darker in the cello part, until Jerzy Caplanek’s first violin and guest Annalee Patipatanakoon’s second violin’s dialogue leads to a crescendo that steals away into the blend of closing quiescent tones.

This profound work by Buhr, who is better-known to me as a dedicated jazz pianist, composer, and bandleader, was preceded by the Penderecki’s performance of Haydn’s juicy middle-period String Quartet No.75/5. There is nothing tentative about this work, bouyed by the elegant knees-up spirits of  Sicilian and European folkdance melodies. However, all four movements are joined by the slow, dark, weighty matter concentrated in the Largo second movement. Elements of it surface in the perturbed minor section initiated by the cello in the first movement, as interjections in the Menuetto, and teasingly at the opening of the Finale until Haydn lets the pace stretch its legs in a Presto of purely lighthearted good humour. The Penderecki’s choice, in the first movement, to slow the tempo of the more sober moments began to make more sense as the feeling of contrast with the more forceful parts developed.

After intermission, the PSQ’s former cellist, Simon Fryer, joined in the performance of Schubert’s monumental “reckoning with the remembrance of loss,” his C-Major String Quintet (D.956). And what a performance it was—the kind that makes you feel that you’ve never heard this piece before—an illusory feeling that means you are learning something new about the music. What came to me from this performance is a heightened sense of Schubert’s intelligence, his shrewdness to the point of cunning in arranging his narrative of death-within-life. Much of this effect is traceable back to the added cello.

After the unusually low pressure meanderings of the opening movement’s Introduction, the rich sonorities of the combined cellos emerge nakedly as a duet singing the first exquisitely shaped melody of the work. The self-assured comfort of the cellos with each other dominates the exposition, development and recapitulation this expansive, multi-themed movement. In the heartbreaking Adagio, and in the plaintive Trio section of the third movement, you can feel Simon Fryer’s fingers on the carotid-blood pulse during his pizzicato dialogue with the anguished cries of the first violin, supported by the harmonic drone of the other violin, cello, and Christine Vlajk’s viola. These passages show the steady intelligence of Schubert’s mind as he peers into the abyss that in a few weeks time would engulf him. One also can experience in the deliberate water-drop-drop of the extra cello’s notes, how the sadness in Schubert’s mind is encapsulated by the gleaming bubble of civilized playfulness.

The final Allegretto is all dance: rollicking Hungarian folk, Viennese cafe, flashes of Mozartean comic opera, brilliant reflections recollected in the tranquility of a clear mind.

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