A fine ‘Fandango’ and fabulous finale

June 4, 2012

The Kennedy Center Chamber Players unearthed a pair of relative rarities involving classical guitar at their Sunday recital at the Terrace Theater, and both pieces proved worth the ensemble’s efforts. Boccherini’s Quintet No 4 for Guitar and String Quartet, “Fandango” — assembled from individual movements the composer had previously written as parts of string quintets, and newly arranged to include a guitar part — is typical of his graceful, melodic gifts. A strikingly lovely Pastoral (usually the opening movement, but played here as the middle movement) evokes the Christmas concertos of earlier 18th-century composers. The Allegro Maestoso movement gives ample opportunity for solo work on Boccherini’s own instrument, the cello (with David Hardy giving the cello writing a gutsy, appealingly rustic charm). The fandango finale incorporates an atmospheric set of castanets — also played by Hardy, with a fine flourish.

But if the Boccherini was a charmer, the Quartet No 15 for Guitar, Violin, Viola and Cello by Paganini was the real find. A splendidly alive and inventive work, the Quartet makes quite a stylistic journey over its five, substantial movements. Opening in extroverted fashion with what is, essentially, a mini-concerto for the viola (the solo line played with throaty tone and confident virtuosity by Daniel Foster), the work then tumbles into a remarkable, andantino second movement that features what sounds like an Italian canzona, fragmented and syncopated into a cockeyed bit of Haydnesque clockwork, and complemented by slithering chord modulations on the guitar. The center of the score is occupied by an extended, highly dramatic (and almost operatically vocal) cadenza, then aria, for the viola, followed by a song-like finale reminiscent of Schubert in its lyricism. It’s a terrific piece – enthusiastically dispatched by the Chamber Players – and needs to be heard more often.

In both works, Benjamin Beirs contributed rounded, mellow tone on the guitar, featuring notably clean left-hand work and sensitive phrasing. As has become the norm of late, the guitar was miked and fed through a small, onstage amplifier. The sound was natural, and the subtle increase in volume gave the instrument an aural presence on a par with the other instruments. The recital closed with the much better known Mozart Piano Quartet in G-Minor, K 478, performed here by Hardy and Foster, along with violinist Marissa Regni (whose lean, focused tone led the strings with incisiveness), and National Symphony music-director Christoph Eschenbach in one of his rare appearances at the keyboard. Eschenbach, of course, began his career as a celebrated pianist, with a particular affinity for Classical-era composers, and his beautifully turned work here reminded us what we’ve been missing as his music-making has turned almost full-time to conducting. His touch was masterfully weighted, with phrase endings beautifully tapered and dynamics calibrated to 18th-century scale without losing the sense of dramatic incident. He was very much a team player, and the rapport he had with the strings was exemplary.

Banno is a freelance writer.

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