Leipzig Quartet doesn't play it rough enough

The Leipzig Quartet.
The Leipzig Quartet.
Monday, March 7, 2011; 7:14 PM

On Sunday evening, the Leipzig Quartet offered the third installment in the National Gallery of Art's year-long Beethoven Quartet Cycle, including Op. 18, No. 1; the "Harp" Quartet, Op. 74; and Beethoven's last full essay, Op. 135. The Leipzig, formed in 1988, has cultivated a particularized style in this repertoire, one that, in the National Gallery's cavernous West Garden Court, offers both rewards and frustrations.

One gets the distinct impression that the Leipzig is used to playing in a dry hall; the quartet made scant allowance for the challenging acoustics of this venue, which particularly tends to swallow up middle registers.

The group's virtues include exemplary string-quartet "hygiene" - ensemble in rapid passages, intonation in unisons and matching of bow strokes. And they do make a pleasing corporate sound using a variety of colors (though predominantly at the quieter end of the dynamic spectrum). The highlight was the Op. 74 Scherzo - biting and dancing.

But throughout, there was insufficient articulation for this venue. Repeated notes, whether long or short, blurred into a single tone. The balance was too lopsided toward the first violin; none of the others projected enough in solos. And the leader, while generally a strong player, was insecure in a few high, fast passages.

The Leipzig's greatest shortcoming, though, was that it sounded too genteel, too polite. Beethoven's many accents were given little attention, and rarely did the group produce a real, full-throated fortissimo. Everything seemed to be about efficiency: The slow movements were all on the fast side; I rarely heard an expressive slide out of anyone; and again, solos were generally underplayed and under-characterized. This music requires greater contrast and force, even roughness at times.

- Robert Battey

© 2011 The Washington Post Company