The Ysaye Quartet's sound was enhanced by the Library of Congress's vintage instruments.
The Ysaye Quartet's sound was enhanced by the Library of Congress's vintage instruments. (By Gerard Rondeau)
Monday, November 19, 2007

Ysaye Quartet

When great musicians play great instruments, even a concert that looks average on paper can become a revelatory event. Friday at the Library of Congress, the Paris-based Ysaye Quartet borrowed vintage instruments from the Library's Cremonese Collection, and repertoire basics by Haydn and Schumann became reborn in performances that were elegant, spirited and bathed in lustrous tones.

First violinist Guillaume Sutre, playing a 1654 Amati, sounded buttery sweet even in the stratospheric registers Haydn wove into his Quartet Op. 64, No. 6. Whether in the bustling Finale or in the delicate Menuetto, each instrument spoke with a unique voice, yet remained perfectly balanced in the ensemble.

The String Quartet in E Minor, Op. 112, by Saint-Sa¿ns is rarely played, and some might argue for good reason: The music looks backward to Beethoven but hardly matches up. Saint-Sa¿ns rigorously overdevelops several themes, as if to prove, like the grand master, he too could construct an entire movement from the tiniest building block. The quartet is too complex, but not without its attractions, notably the long-lined Adagio melody, which the Ysaye floated with hushed intimacy.

The spirit of Beethoven also looms over Schumann's String Quartet No. 3. Its opening theme quotes a Beethoven piano sonata. Yet despite the nod backward, the music looks ahead with a mind of its own. Cellist Yovan Markovitch's 1697 Stradivarius buzzed like a bagpipe, resonating warmly in the syncopated Finale. But the core of the quartet is its Adagio, an introverted nervous system of drones, uncanny call-and-response and passionate lyricism. The creamy tone from violist Miguel Da Silva's 1727 Strad was indicative of the beauty that reverberated around the hall all evening.

-- Tom Huizenga

National Philharmonic

Depending upon the listener's perspective, Beethoven's mighty "Missa Solemnis" is either an idiosyncratic head-scratcher or a visionary and sublimely moving masterwork. It's both, of course -- as so many of the composer's late-career scores are -- and its quirky, exultant, stream-of-consciousness writing can prove a daunting proposition for even the greatest orchestras and choruses.

It's a tribute to conductor Stan Engebretson that he could draw such warmly communicative singing and assured playing from the National Philharmonic Chorale and Orchestra at Strathmore on Saturday, in a piece with challenges on nearly every page. Granted, some of the thornier orchestral writing came across as cautious reading rather than unfettered expression, and there were moments (the opening of the "Gloria," for one) where the chorus -- its ranks swelled on this occasion by the fine James Madison University Chorale -- sounded tentative and took a while to build up a head of steam. But overall, the ensemble responded with commitment, sensitivity and solid technical finish.

Among a fine team of vocal soloists (including radiant-voiced soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme, veteran tenor John Aler and baritone Dean Elzinga), it was mezzo Jennifer Hines who made the most distinctive impression -- recovering from a wince-inducing rhythmic car-wreck on her first entrance in the "Kyrie," to provide singing of contralto-like richness and punch. Concertmaster Jody Gatwood was the eloquent violin soloist in the "Benedictus."

-- Joe Banno

Anabel Montesinos

There may be little music more inherently "guitaristic" than the lyrical, evocative works of 20th-century Spanish composers like Joaquin Rodrigo and Isaac Albeniz. Perhaps that's why the young Spanish virtuoso Anabel Montesinos chose a largely Iberian program for her concert Saturday night at Westmoreland Congregational Church, applying her spectacular technique to works like Rodrigo's "Tres Piezas Espanolas," Albeniz's "Asturias" and works by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Manuel Quiroga.

And -- despite being virtually fenced off from the audience by an intrusive microphone setup -- Montesinos brought them all off with style and grace. There's a rare delicacy to her touch that works well with this music, but she's no cringing flower; the charging rhythms of the "Zapateado" movement of the Rodrigo came off with fine, resolute power as well.

The tone shifted in the second half of the concert, when Montesinos was joined onstage by the Cuban guitarist Marco Tamayo -- who is also her teacher and fiance. The mix of virtuosity and love made for some passionate music; playing their distinctive styles against each other (she sweet and almost impetuous, he darker and more powerful), the pair brought off Bach's "Italian" Concerto and a sonata by Paganini with near flawlessness.

But the most engaging moment may have been the encore: a piece, Tamayo announced, "for four hands and one guitar." As Montesinos played Mozart's famous "Alla Turca" rondo, Tamayo crouched behind her, his face next to hers, reaching around to play the bass line on the lower strings. He nuzzled, and plucked. She blushed, and plucked faster.

Mozart may never be the same.

-- Stephen Brookes

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