You might expect a string quartet named Enso — after the calligraphic circle that serves as a symbol of Zen Buddhism — to have a certain detachment from earthly things, maybe even an affinity for the pared-down music of John Cage or Morton Feldman. But this young ensemble has gone in the opposite direction, digging up chamber music by 19th-century composers more famous for their operas. At the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater on Tuesday, Enso turned in an emphatically non-detached evening of lush, passionate music by Verdi, Puccini and Richard Strauss.
Strauss wrote his String Quartet in A, Op. 2, in 1880, when he was 16. As you might expect, there’s teenage posturing (and Mendelssohn worship) in almost every note. But cut the kid some slack; this lavishly romantic quartet might not be quite mature, but it’s skillfully done, full of life and passages of great beauty — particularly the luminous andante cantabile, where Strauss’s emerging musical identity rears its head.
Enso gave Strauss a robust and affectionate reading, then shifted into more serious waters with Puccini’s 1890 “Chrysanthemums.”. It’s a short but profoundly felt and beautiful work; it was, perhaps, the most deeply satisfying music of the evening, and the quartet brought it off with smoldering power — half honey, half molten lava — and beautifully integrated playing.
Three agreeable, forgettable minuets by Puccini followed before the evening closed with Verdi’s intriguing Quartet for Strings in E Minor. Written almost offhandedly to fill a few empty weeks, it’s the only quartet piece Verdi composed, and he didn’t use the form to express subtle, intimate musical ideas, as composers tend to do. Instead, there’s an almost theatrical quality to the writing, with big entrances and sotto voce scheming and other exciting goings-on, all tied up a rare Verdi fugue. It was great romp all around, and Enso played it with full-throated dramatic intensity. This fine, imaginative ensemble is well worth keeping an eye on.
Brookes is a freelance writer.