From Tania French, Shades of Happiness In a String Quartet
Few modern composers try to depict happiness in their music, perhaps because their often stringent materials suit darker topics better. But Alexandria-born Tania Gabrielle French found an intriguing vocabulary to evoke various flavors of happiness in her String Quartet No. 3, which received its East Coast premiere from the Artis-Quartett Wien on Wednesday night in the Library of Congress's Coolidge Auditorium.
French subtitled the quartet "Luminescence," and her harmonies indeed glow brightly throughout, so that stutter-stepping rhythms from the cello in "Ease," the first movement, don't disturb the relaxed swing of the melody above. While "Mirth" lacks a memorable theme, its breezy rhythms and florid harmonies lend it charm, and the brief flickers of brightness in the slow "Reflection" feel all the more hard-won for the keening laments that surround them. In the "Bliss" finale, ecstatic arpeggios in the violins serve as garlands for ardent melody in the viola and cello below. The Artis-Quartett's witty and passionate performance made a happy match for this appealing music.
Two engaging pieces by Mendelssohn that showed the influence of Beethoven's late quartets opened the concert, and the Artis presented an actual late Beethoven quartet after intermission: the String Quartet No. 12 in E-flat, Op. 127. The uniformly fast tempos the quartet adopted had it briefly running off the rails a couple of times, but the musicians brought exquisite control and eloquent phrasing to Beethoven's great slow set of variations, and they had great fun with the rough rhythmic surprises of the Scherzo. The strange acceleration in the closing pages of the Finale here felt like a glimpse into the infinite, capping a compelling performance.
-- Andrew Lindemann Malone