Music review: American String Quartet at the National Gallery

The American String Quartet.
The American String Quartet. (Peter Schaff)
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By Robert Battey
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, January 3, 2011; 6:58 PM

The Beethoven string quartet cycle - 16.5 masterpieces, covering all periods of the composer's life - is a sure-fire programming device, whether from a single group or divided up among several. The National Gallery has chosen the latter course for its six-concert 2011 survey, which began Sunday with the American String Quartet. Future performances will include prominent Czech, German and U.S. groups.

The American Quartet, now in its 35th season, has undergone changes in personnel, but has always maintained high performance standards and a respectable career. In this core repertoire, their deep familiarity with the music pays dividends in easy, seamless ensemble and well-tuned chords. But deep familiarity also brings the danger of routine, and while the group gave an energetic, fully committed performance, there was a want of mystery, transcendence or shock. Beethoven's music jolted his audiences, and while intervening centuries of music have made the actual sounds seem tame to modern ears, the same effect can still be re-created by careful preparation, context and contrast.

The American Quartet's sound is gentle, well-manicured and, to these ears, not terribly interesting. Beethoven's mold-breaking sonorities, even in the early quartets, need more bite and astringency, and the sepulchral acoustics of the National Gallery's Garden Court space demands it. But accents and sudden dynamic contrasts were flattened out, letting everything simmer together in the aural soup.The effect was exacerbated by some ill-advised tempos in some of the fast pieces, particularly in the E Minor Quartet. The Allegretto movement sounded as if it were marked "presto scherzando," and the American Quartet fell into Beethoven's trap in the finale of taking a tempo so fast that there was no room to execute the "piu presto" (still faster) tempo marking at the end. The finale of the Quartet in A also whizzed by without allowing any of the jokes to make their effect. Other complaints include some carelessness in rendering the closely related but distinct rhythms in the slow movement of the Quartet in E Minor.

But things went much better in the C-sharp Minor Quartet, perhaps Beethoven's crowning achievement in the genre. Though the composer's exacting dynamic instructions were still given short shrift, the performance was on the whole very successful; well-paced and organic, all the tempos fitting and some fresh, interesting ideas. Here and there, the leader's intonation would stray in the upper register, but the sophistication of the string playing and the group's imaginative articulations and colors made for a satisfying reading of this elusive pinnacle of the repertoire.

The series will continue Feb. 6 with the Ariel Quartet and March 6 with the Leipzig Quartet (the final three concerts will take place in the fall).

Battey is a freelance writer.

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