The Volger String Quartet of Berlin played several Beethoven works at Dumbarton Church in Georgetown on Saturday.
The Volger String Quartet of Berlin played several Beethoven works at Dumbarton Church in Georgetown on Saturday. (Dumbarton Concerts)
Monday, March 27, 2006

Vogler String Quartet

Every once in a while, a performance puts all others in perspective and reminds one that in great music there is always more to be revealed. At Georgetown's Dumbarton Church on Saturday, the Vogler String Quartet's readings of the Beethoven Quartets Op. 59, No. 3 and Op. 130 and the astonishing "Grosse Fugue," Op. 133, offered such a performance.

The Vogler highlighted the powers of reflective thought in music of such complexity that just making sense of its structure can be a struggle. Its sotto voce passages were both moments of respite and staging grounds for eruptions to come. There were ritards that took on such personal qualities that they might have come straight from the lieder repertoire.

The brief rest scored into every other measure of the first violin line of the "Alla danza tedesca" fourth movement of the Op. 130 quartet was played exactly as written, but was shaped with such delicacy that there was none of the abruptness that so often characterizes it.

Some of the quartet's tempos were daring. The fugal Finale of Op. 59 was taken remarkably fast, for instance, and the final Allegro of Op. 130 also moved very quickly -- but the exquisite balance, clarity and dynamic shading that the Vogler managed made both of those breathtaking rather than breathless. It was this same combination of balance, clarity and dynamic shading, along with huge dollops of energy and ensemble, that produced a "Grosse Fugue" of extraordinary transparency and coherence.

-- Joan Reinthaler

Bach Collegium Japan

If there are doubts that the Bach Collegium Japan is one of the world's most astonishing baroque ensembles, they were dispelled Friday night in a Library of Congress performance that was beautiful, riveting and ferociously intense.

The Collegium specializes in authentic performance of baroque music, using the period instruments and techniques that have become virtually standard -- and often fussily academic -- in concert halls everywhere. But there was nothing stuffy about Friday's performance.

Harpsichordist and artistic director Masaaki Suzuki brought such penetrating focus to this sound that every shred of affect was burned away -- leaving nothing but pure music in its wake.

And what music. The all-Bach evening opened with the Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor, a lyrical and wonderfully inventive set of dances.

Pixie-esque flutist Liliko Maeda turned in a bravura performance on the one-keyed wooden flute -- perhaps the prettiest, most unforgiving instrument -- negotiating the finger-snarling passage-work with spirit and enviable nonchalance.

That was followed by the searing Harpsichord Concerto No. 1 in D Minor. The harpsichord can be hard to love -- Thomas Beecham compared it to "two skeletons copulating on a tin roof" -- but in Suzuki's hands it became an instrument of transfiguring power, with a virtuosic and unrelenting performance.

That was hard to top, but Ryo Terakado and Natsumi Wakamatsu tried, and their reading of the Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor was fiery and intense. The unforgettable performances were topped off with an account of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 that, like everything else on the program, raised the bar on Bach performance.

-- Stephen Brookes

Embassy Series

Adding an extra viola to the standard string quartet unlocked a wealth of possibilities for Mozart -- an alternate leading voice, a duo of violas to oppose the violins, an extra source of harmonic light and shade. And the extraordinary depth and imagination of the composer's string quintets no doubt inspired the Embassy Series to round off its season-long celebration of Mozart's 250th birthday by presenting all the quintets in two concerts at the Austrian Embassy.

Unfortunately, problems cropped up while executing that fine idea during Friday's program (the second of the two).

The ad hoc group's performers -- violinists Peter Sirotin and Claudia Chudacoff, violists Michael Stepniak and Julius Wirth and cellist Fiona Thompson -- play often and well on the local chamber music scene, which made it all the more surprising that their performance of the Quintet in C, K. 515, was so error-prone, tentative and muddled. Players seemed unprepared for each other's flourishes, rhythms sounded indistinct and nothing seemed particularly connected.

The group came out resolute and unified in the Quintet in C Minor, K. 406, and the Quintet in E-flat, K. 614, smoothing things out by urging the music ahead. The luminous slow movement of the E-flat quintet, in fact, could have used a gentler touch, a little more room to breathe. But the players had fun with the unusually dense counterpoint Mozart used in the outer movements of both works, tossing around motives and making bracing declamatory gestures to launch the interplay.

-- Andrew Lindemann Malone

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