By Joe Banno
Monday, December 21, 2009; C07
Beethoven's late quartets are still, after nearly 200 years, among the best barometers for assessing a string quartet's interpretive profile. These complex, emotionally restive works from the end of the composer's life open themselves to a wide variety of responses. They prove alternately nostalgic and daringly forward-looking in terms of style.
The Parker String Quartet -- a youthful ensemble of New England Conservatory grads -- brought freshness and light to the first of the late quartets, the E-flat Quartet, Op. 127, at the Library of Congress on Friday. There was a notable ardor and tenderness to the first movement, a rapt reflectiveness in the second, and subtly inflected, quicksilver engagement with Beethoven's intricate writing in the Scherzando and Finale. Nothing was offhand or superficial in the Parker's emotionally mature reading, but the players found the breath of youth under the composer's autumnal ruminations.
Haydn's Quartet in C, Op. 20, No. 2, drew a performance that was so light on its feet it was practically airborne, though the ensemble also made compelling work of the plunge into darkness at the opening of the slow movement. And in Henri Dutilleux's moody and mysterious first string quartet, "Ainsi la Nuit," the Parker distilled a potently unsettling atmosphere from coloristic devices like sudden bursts of pizzicato, a series of eerie upper-string harmonics and the evocatively slow decay of released notes. Stradivari, Amati and Guarneri instruments from the library's collection, loaned to the musicians for this recital, contributed silver-toned elegance to everything they played.
-- Joe Banno