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Few string quartets today have a sound as pleasing as the Vermeer Quartet. Yet Friday at the Library of Congress, the group showed how pushing "pleasing" to its limits can be an asset.
The Vermeers displayed their likable, well-integrated tone in Haydn's Quartet Op. 76, No. 1. First violinist Shmuel Ashkenasi applied a folksy but elegant charm to the rustic Menuetto. And Marc Johnson's cello radiated a warm glow over the hymnlike Adagio.
Pianist Edmund Battersby joined the group for Ernst von Dohnanyi's Piano Quintet No. 1. It's rarely played, and often accused of sounding like warmed-over Brahms. Which it does. Still, the quintet has its merits, especially the rollicking Magyar theme dominating the finale. It's the kind of catchy tune you enjoy humming later. But for all its ardor, the quintet feels claustrophobic -- often too ambitious, too tightly woven and too Brahmsian for its own good. Battersby's myriad notes barely poked through the thicket of strings.
The Vermeers traded their amiable tone for an atmosphere of manic ecstasy in Leos Janacek's String Quartet No. 2 ("Intimate Letters"). It's a musical translation of white-hot love letters, blazing with mournful cries and moments of surprising violence.
Ashkenasi's resourceful playing delivered tones that both swelled with lyrical passion and teetered on the edge of fear. Violist Richard Young's intuitive playing was as rock-solid as can be in music of such crazed passion, especially at the end, where instead of wrapping up with a pretty bow, Janacek impulsively snaps off the sound, and you're left breathless.
-- Tom Huizenga