The Minguet Quartet, a German group new to me, showed its impressive wares Wednesday in a Washington Performing Arts Society concert at the Kennedy Center. It is a well-matched ensemble, the second violin strong and assertive, all four members playing with focused clarity.
It took a while for the group to reveal its talents. The opening Haydn quartet (Op. 76 No. 5) was slightly desiccated; every phrase was polished until it gleamed, but the piece was not fully alive. I appreciated the pure intonation in the Largo (set in the dreadful key of F-sharp), but there was too much stasis, the music crawling rather than flowing. Elsewhere, the hair-trigger dynamic contrasts and flawless ensemble interplay showed the group’s high technical quality.
Next came the Quartet No. 4 by Wolfgang Rihm, a prolific composer who recently finished his 13th such work. It was almost a parody of pointless, atonal note-generation, liberally sprinkled with unnatural sound effects. Other than an opening unison statement, a few stray snatches of shared melody, and one elegiac section in the second movement (perhaps atoning for an extended scream from the violins immediately preceding it that was actually painful to hear), there was nothing in the piece that could offer pleasure on any aesthetic level.
The foursome barely made it offstage before the applause ended, this for a performance that undoubtedly took up the vast majority of their rehearsal time. Such repertoire is to real music what gymnastics is to ballet; the effort required to execute it may be greater, but the effort is, in the end, all there is.
In Mendelssohn’s F minor quartet, the Minguet gave its all: virtuosity and passion, kept within a framework of painstaking preparation. “Freedom with order,” as Pablo Casals used to say. This is not one of the composer’s strongest quartets, but this performance elevated it considerably and erased all memory of what the audience had endured before intermission. The encore was a sober rendition of a Contrapunctus from Bach’s “Art of the Fugue.”
Battey is a freelance writer.