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Fine Arts Quartet performs at Fortas Chamber Music series at Kennedy Center

By Stephen Brookes,

Put together a list of the world’s most enduring string quartets, and the Fine Arts Quartet — a powerhouse of American chamber music for more than six decades — will rank very near the top.

That’s due to the group’s incisive powers of interpretation and a taste for off-the-beaten-path repertoire, both of which were in evidence (if not always at the same time) Tuesday night, when the quartet appeared at the Terrace Theater at the Kennedy Center as part of the Fortas Chamber Music series.

The program followed the quartet’s usual formula — open with Haydn, insert an unfamiliar work, close with a romantic blockbuster — but it’s a pattern that works. Haydn’s Quartet in G Major, Op. 77, No. 1 is a fascinating work, shimmering deftly from light to dark to light again, propelled by a tightly coiled logic underneath. To these ears, Haydn is best served slightly chilled, but the Fine Arts players took a warmer and more emotive approach — almost romantic, in fact, with little sobs tossed in here and there — that set the tone for the evening.

More intriguing was a little-known quartet by the violinist Efrem Zimbalist, more popularly known as the father of television star Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and grandfather of actress Stephanie Zimbalist. His Quartet in E Minor, written in 1931 and revised in 1959, is a lush and richly melodic work, romantic in style and Russian in flavor, that unfolds inventively and with the free sense of a fantasia. The Fine Arts Quartet brought great conviction to the work, and there was much to admire. But Zimbalist’s gift for melody was not always matched by a sense of the deeper architecture of music, and the work often felt taped together — a dated, fading snapshot of the times.

But Schubert’s Quartet No. 14 in D Minor — the famous “Death and the Maiden” quartet — remains as defiantly alive now as it was in 1824. It’s a thrilling work, and the Fine Arts Players turned in a superb and absolutely impassioned performance — a seamless and astute reading from its slashing opening chords to its galloping, heart-racing finale.

Brookes is a freelance writer.

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