THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Music Review

String quartets showcase power and polish

Email|Print| Text size + By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / February 18, 2008

The Guarneri and Johannes string quartets' Celebrity Series concert on Friday was notable not just for its tag-team format, but for a high concentration of brand-new music: two short quartets and an octet, all premiered earlier this month, being given their first Boston performances. Formed in 1998, the Johannes Quartet is an accomplished side project, its members maintaining careers as soloists or orchestral principals. The Guarneri have pursued quartet playing since 1964, and remain explorers even on the eve of their farewell season.

The Johannes's new quartet was "Homunculus" by Esa-Pekka Salonen, who famously moonlights conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It's a close-packed work - numerous dense, contrasting short sections piled up into a loose fast-slow-fast-slow structure. Salonen's harmonies, redolently slipping back and forth across the dissonant-consonant border, often echo Debussy, as do specific textures: slow melodies stretched over tremolo chords, coruscating torrents of downward arpeggios.

Except for a brief viola solo toward the end, all four instruments are active nearly the whole time; traditional chamber music conversations play out in traffic. But "Homunculus" sounds marvelous, colorful and rich. By comparison, the Guarneri's piece, New York-based composer Derek Bermel's "Passing Through," was a trifle: a turn-of-the-last-century parlor-sweet berceuse - the sort of thing Charles Ives would have quoted - periodically interjected with faux-modernist asides.

The excellent performances highlighted each group's tonal approach: If the Johannes's chromium-steel clarity was like a deep-focus photograph, the Guarneri opted for painted brush strokes, softer-edged, smoothing sonic contrasts with a warm varnish.

The groups joined for William Bolcom's magnificent new "Octet: Double Quartet." Bolcom's omnivorous style - vernacular echoes abound - is anchored by a classical sense of proportion and form: The varied musics unfold with sure dramatic intent. The work tends toward darkness, even violence; the sharply etched second movement ends with harrowing, slashing chords, bows inching toward the instruments' bridges, a rain of metallic shrapnel. Even the jaunty barcarolle that frames the "Rondeau" finale grows out of joint and dissonantly hazy. With occasional exceptions - the high tangle of violins at the opening, a Mendelssohnian thin-ice scherzo - the sound carries ominous weight and grandeur.

Felix Mendelssohn's 1825 Octet closed the concert: In a robust, energetic performance, the contrasts between the two quartets paid fascinating musical dividends, the Johannes providing precise rhythmic horsepower, the Guarneri giving the harmonies a pillowy, elegant buoyancy. The 16-year-old Mendelssohn's incandescent masterpiece coursed with enough invention to amplify, not erase, the program's novel cast.

Guarneri String Quartet and Johannes String Quartet

Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston

At: Jordan Hall, Friday

more stories like this

  • Email
  • Email
  • Print
  • Print
  • Single page
  • Single page
  • Reprints
  • Reprints
  • Share
  • Share
  • Comment
  • Comment
 
  • Share on DiggShare on Digg
  • Tag with Del.icio.us Save this article
  • powered by Del.icio.us
Your Name Your e-mail address (for return address purposes) E-mail address of recipients (separate multiple addresses with commas) Name and both e-mail fields are required.
Message (optional)
Disclaimer: Boston.com does not share this information or keep it permanently, as it is for the sole purpose of sending this one time e-mail.