A manic thread ran through the music that the Austrian-based Hugo Wolf Quartet brought to the Corcoran Gallery on Friday night.
Quartets by Beethoven, Janacek and the contemporary composer Johannes Maria Staud are divided by many decades, but they each reveal a kind of split personality, pivoting between odd outbursts and tender lyricism.
Janacek’s second quartet, one of the greatest of the 20th century, sounded more like the unstable ecstasies of a lovesick teenager. But Janacek was 74 when he wrote it, energized by his affair with a married woman half his age.
It’s best not to smooth out Janacek’s rough edges and volcanic melodies. But in the first movement, the Wolf did just that, overpolishing the music with their warm, rich and well-blended tone. Later, they synced with the music’s intensity, especially in the final movement, where a furious triple forte tremolo played sul ponticello (“on the bridge”) scorched like a lightning bolt.
Staud’s “Allegro Feroce” actually isn’t that ferocious when following Janacek. The five-minute, encore-sized piece fit uncomfortably in the program, sounding more like a homage to what we had just heard — with its nervous arpeggios and snatches of lyricism — than a piece solidly on its own.
Beethoven’s Quartet No. 14 isn’t as effusive. Still, its radical form (seven uninterrupted movements), strange key (C-sharp minor) and experimental sounds (grotesque pizzicatos, ghostly sul ponticello) make a surprisingly modern-sounding quartet for 1826. The Wolf played best in the gentle fugue that unfolds the opening movement, each inner voice a thing of transparent beauty. But they suffered a few unfortunate missteps along the rest of Beethoven’s strange journey.
— Tom Huizenga