The Biava Quartet at the Kennedy Center

Friday, March 20, 2009; 5:49 PM

Shostakovich's music opened the Pro Musica Hebraica-sponsored recital by the Biava Quartet at the Terrace Theater on Thursday. It was his Fourth String Quartet, infused with Russian-Jewish folk music and a notably gentler score than some of his other, anguished works in that form. The other four composers on the program, however, were names few listeners today would know.

They were all members of the so-called St. Petersburg school of composition (students at that Russian city's music conservatory who were urged by teachers such as Rimsky-Korsakov to delve into their Jewish roots for source music). There were stylistic differences in the ways these composers incorporated folk songs. The pungent tonality and intricately woven lines of Joseph Achron's "Four Improvisations," for instance, sounded miles away from the heavy-breathing chromaticism of Aleksandr Zhitomirskii's "The Rabbi's Melody."

But nearly all the pieces seemed to speak slowly, mournfully and in a minor key, and the hangdog mood became a little oppressive by evening's end. Even Leo Zeitlin's "Five Songs From the Yiddish" -- sung by two fine, expressive singers, Rachel Calloway (mezzo) and Alexander Tall (baritone) -- managed to deconstruct some customarily lively tunes into angular, depressive tone poems. Ironically, it was a piece called "Elegie" (a piano quintet, enlivened by the colorful keyboard work of Konstantin Soukhovetski) that proved a buoyant exception. Written by Oscar-winning film-noir composer Michel Michelet (born Mikhail Levin), it sounded like Ravel in Russian clothing.

Whatever the mood proffered by these scores, however, the Biava players delivered a beautifully lean, manicured sound all evening.

-- Joe Banno


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