Calder Quartet’s impressive nuances make for memorable Phillips performance

November 25, 2013

Okay, so when did string quartets start getting so hip? The ultra-cool Brooklyn Rider quartet was in town Saturday night, and on Sunday afternoon the equally adventurous Calder Quartet — which has teamed with rock bands such as The National and Dirty Projectors, and been featured on David Letterman’s and Conan O’Brien’s shows — put on a high-octane performance at the Phillips Collection. But it wasn’t quite the daring program you might have expected; in fact, the Calder kept well to the center lane, balancing angst-ridden Bartok with Schubert’s warmly familiar “Death and the Maiden” quartet, and offering only one piece of music from the past 20 years.

But what a piece it was. The British composer Thomas Adès was in his early 20s when he wrote the stunning “Arcadiana” (1994), and it is indisputably a masterpiece. Made up of seven short “snapshots of paradise” (as Calder violinist Andrew Bulbrook put it), the work comes off as a kind of luminous dreamscape, awash in echoes and shadows and wisps of memory that drift in and out of hearing. It’s all nuance and subtle suggestion, full of inventive writing and evocations of composers from Mozart to Elgar. Not an easy work to bring off, in other words — but Calder found a solid dramatic core that tied the atmospherics together, and by the end you wanted to go out and listen to everything by Adès you could find.

Bartok’s String Quartet No. 2 was written in the darkest years of World War I, and from the opening notes it’s clear you’re hearing the sound of a world falling apart. A chilling sense of tragedy runs through it — even the jaunty “Allegro molto capriccioso” gives most ears the creeping jimjams — and it closes with a slow lament that sounds like music from the end of the Earth. Calder gave it an insightful reading, and its lean, astringent sound fit the work beautifully. But it was a rather measured performance as well, even a bit withheld, and despite the sharpness of Bartok’s bite, it never seemed to quite draw blood.

The heat returned, though, in Schubert’s scorching String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D. 810 (“Death and the Maiden”). For an old warhorse, it still packs a serious kick, and the Calder players took a fresh, modern look at the work, paring away much of the voluptuous swooning and turning in a refreshingly clear-eyed — but no less powerful — account. A fine close to an intriguing, impressive afternoon.

Brookes is a freelance writer.

The Calder Quartet. (Autumn de Wilde)
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