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MUSIC REVIEW

A whirlwind 'tour' begins at home

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / February 3, 2009
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WALTHAM - Having surveyed the genre for more than a quarter-century of performing, the Lydian String Quartet is in the midst of a survey called "Around the World in a String Quartet," like a lantern-slide lecture by a 19th-century explorer. Such musical souvenirs, though, often become more idiosyncratic than representative, the composer's personality trumping local color. So it was with Saturday's program at Brandeis - which embarked on a journey without even leaving home.

Yehudi Wyner's "Brandeis Sunday" was composed, in fact, for university president Jehuda Reinharz's 1995 inauguration. Eschewing triumphalism for more reticent introspection, a gently pulsing chorale leads to jazzy, syncopated harmonic tangles. By marching to its own drummer, this occasional piece deservedly lives beyond the occasion. Cellist Joshua Gordon's focused depth set the tone, but the group as a whole came in and out of timbral focus: stepping in for Judith Eissenberg (recovering from surgery), guest violinist Danielle Maddon played with a substantial, mid-range sound that often matched up better with Mary Ruth Ray's similar viola than Daniel Stepner's more fine-spun violin.

The concert's French ambassador was contemporary master Henri Dutilleux's only string quartet (as yet), "Ainsi la nuit" ("Thus the night"), finished in 1976. As the title indicates, the nocturnal mood grows out of the material instead of determining it. A rich but syntactically ambiguous harmony sires glittering tremolos and mercurial ornamentation. Themes reflect forward and back, a symmetry of experience and memory.

The players' tightly-wound intensity and close-up, almost expressionist focus highlighted detail but sacrificed depth-of-field; Dutilleux's Technicolor landscape was closer to film noir. Still, the dramatic drive produced an immediacy that belied musical stereotypes of Gallic languor: this was a night for things to go bump in. (Throughout the evening, tuning seemed to be bothersome, with the players taking a pause to spot-check between two normally uninterrupted movements.)

The concert closed with Beethoven's E-minor Quartet, the second of the Op. 59 quartets dedicated to the Russian diplomat Count Andrey Razumovsky. Even within the travelogue context, it was hard to hear anything specifically German about the music, though that may just be a tribute to the extent of Beethoven's cultural canonization. (Then again, there was a side-trip via the Russian tune Beethoven quotes.) But the realization was worth writing home about: the players gave Beethoven's heroic outbursts real gravity by infusing the quiet contrasts with delicate potential energy. Like any seasoned traveler, the group spoke this language like a native.

LYDIAN STRING QUARTET

At: Slosberg Recital Hall, Brandeis University, Saturday

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