Alban Berg Quartet's Passionate and Bittersweet Farewell

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 25, 2008

The Alban Berg Quartet preserves a bygone style of playing: the rich full string sound of Central Europe. Founded in 1971, the group has maintained its position as one of the leading string quartets in Europe, particularly in its native Vienna, where it has long had its own chamber series at the Konzerthaus. Now, the current members have decided it is time to close. On Friday night, they bid goodbye to Washington, a stop on an ongoing round of farewell appearances that will conclude in Buenos Aires in July. Their Library of Congress performance was sometimes searing, generally autumnal, and showed both that they are still capable of grand musicmaking and that, in fact, it is probably time to go.

Late styles were the de facto theme of the program. It combined Op. 77, No. 1 by the elderly Haydn and the inward intensity of Beethoven's Op. 132 with an early work by Alban Berg, the String Quartet, Op. 3. It is a piece that, though early for the composer, represents a late style for romantic music in general. Taking leave of the 19th century, thrust out into the void of the 20th, the piece tests every limit, keening and raging against the dying of the light.

And the playing of the quartet had the same late-period air. On the one hand, this meant a gruff mellowness, a thoughtfulness; on the other, a hellbent, seize-the-day attitude that led them out over the void, without a net and without compromise.

A late style was also represented by the touch of spideriness, even querulousness, in the playing of the first violinist Guenter Pichler. His was the voice of experience rather than youth: a voice with a lot to say, but sometimes wavering, sometimes a little sour, sometimes a little off pitch.

Accordingly, the evening's rewards lay in understanding what can be gained by moving past expectations of perfection. Bringing out the human side of the performance may even have enhanced its communicative urgency. The Haydn was least well-served, throaty rather than clean, but then in the third movement strong tuttis showed the quartet operating as a single voice before breaking off into disparate paths. The Berg showcased the group's lyricism, with beautiful viola passages from Isabel Charisius, its youngest member, who joined in 2005.

And Beethoven's "Heiliger Dankgesang" was profound in its directness -- music about looking at illness, and its consequences, and being grateful to be liberated. The quartet then flung itself into the last movement with the all-out freedom of people with nothing to lose. If the light is dying, the final rage was memorable.

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