Music review of the Arcanto Quartet at the Library of Congress

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Arcanto Quartet, put together less than a decade ago by four rising young European soloists, made an exacting and often ferocious American debut at the Library of Congress on Wednesday night, playing familiar works with an analytical edge so sharp it felt like it could draw blood. That's both good and bad, alas. In Mozart's Quartet in D Minor, K. 421, for instance, the Arcanto's focus on clarity and atomic-level detail was impressive, and while the piece was finely played and full of surprising insights, it also seemed to be missing much of its lyrical DNA. The result was a grab bag: The opening and closing movements had an elegant, lively bite, but the lovely Menuetto came off as so much canned charm.

The Mozart was followed by Maurice Ravel's Quartet in F -- a great shimmering hallucination of a work, full of elusive colors and explosions of savagery, and the Arcanto gave it a clear-eyed reading that revealed details often missed by other quartets. But the hard-focus approach sacrificed much of the magic that makes the piece so seductive, and it was easier to respect the performance than to love it.

The Arcanto's formidable strengths shone to best advantage, though, in Bela Bartók's Quartet No. 5, which closed the program. It takes self-confidence to tackle this work here -- it was written for Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge herself, and premiered at the Library of Congress in 1935 -- but the players turned in a reading of absolutely stunning virtuosity and depth, so relentlessly powerful you didn't dare move for fear you might get hurt. This was extraordinary playing in every way, and a fine close to an intriguing, impressive debut.

-- Stephen Brookes

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