Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Hugo Wolf Quartet

It's an age-old question: Why spend an evening listening to Schubert string quartets when you could be at a bar, screaming at the television? But for the thin crowd who skipped the Super Bowl on Sunday night and made it down to the Hugo Wolf Quartet's recital at the National Gallery of Art, the rewards were every bit as dramatic as the Giants' win.

This relatively young, Vienna-based quartet has been generating a lot of buzz lately for its intensely characterful performances of the standard and not-so-standard repertoire. The buzz seems warranted: Opening with Schubert's precocious Quartet in E-flat, D. 87 (written when he was all of 16), they dug into it with utter seriousness, revealing unsuspected gravity in a work that, to these ears, has always sounded distinctly callow.

The composer Hugo Wolf (for whom the group, obviously, is named) is best known for his moody songs, but the "Italian Serenade" from 1887 may be one of his most playful works, full of deft irony and subtle jokes. Oddly and a bit disappointingly, the Wolf Quartet gave it a dark, unsmiling reading -- beautifully executed (despite the detail-smearing acoustics of the West Garden Court), but rather low on charm.

It didn't matter; it was all prelude to the real event of the evening, Schubert's stupendous Quartet in G, D. 887, one of the great (but too rarely heard) works of the chamber music repertoire.

Schubert wrote it near the end of his life, and it stares into his impending death with almost frightening intensity; there's an elemental, sweeping power to it that few quartets can handle. But the group played it magnificently -- a bold and gripping performance, led by the superb violinist Sebastian Guertler.

-- Stephen Brookes

Manhattan Piano Trio

Chamber musicians routinely speak of equality in the group. The Manhattan Piano Trio really practices it. Its performance at St. Luke Catholic Church in McLean on Sunday interlaced works for the full trio with ones highlighting each individual member.

Everything that pianist Milana Strezeva, violinist Dmitry Lukin and cellist Dmitry Kouzov played was excellent, and one work was outstanding: Anton Arensky's Piano Trio No. 1. This neglected gem is searingly romantic, soaring and lyrical, filled with drama and meltingly beautiful melodies. It requires -- and received -- near-intuitive ensemble balance. The very even acoustics of the church, where more than 30 CDs have been recorded, enhanced the work's emotional intensity.

The rarely heard "Trio-Miniaturen" by Arensky's pupil Paul Juon was less angst-filled, featuring themes reminiscent here of Sibelius, there of Borodin, and wearing its heart firmly on its sleeve.

In stark contrast to the Russian gloom was Haydn's sunny "Gypsy Rondo" Trio in G, which got a clean, slightly romanticized interpretation in which the piano did not overshadow the strings -- an impressive accomplishment with a modern concert grand.

Between three-instrument pieces, Strezeva played Liszt's "Un Sospiro" with lovely flow; Lukin showed highly impressive harmonics and double stops in extracts from Bartok's "Romanian Folk Dances"; and Kouzov did a marvelous job with Mstislav Rostropovich's hyperkinetic "Humoresque," which sounds like the flight of an over-caffeinated bumblebee.

The performers concluded with a deliciously hammed-up version of Shostakovich's "Jazz Suite No. 1," mugging for the audience while tossing off dissonances and rhythmic shifts with abandon.

-- Mark J. Estren

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