In its new flush of popularity, the chamber music business is becoming increasingly emboldened. There was a time when most chamber music programs came in three matching parts--an 18th-century quartet, a late 19th-century and a Beethoven or Schubert quartet. No longer.
Last night's recital at the Kennedy Center by the Guarneri Quartet pressed the perimeters further than this listener can recall. After intermission, Misha Dichter came out for his only appearance on the program and dispatched with tremendous e'lan one of the grandest of virtuoso showpieces, Stravinsky's digitally daunting piano settings of three movements from "Petrouchka." Dichter's Olympian power and accuracy were rigorously tested, and they passed brilliantly. These are pieces that most pianists simply can't handle, which is probably one reason Dichter grinned like the cat that swallowed the canary as he took his bows.
Meanwhile the Guarneri was nowhere to be seen. It was the first time I can remember a quartet concert in which at least some of the players did not participate in each performance. But that is not to complain; the Dichter performance added a measure of virtuoso electricity to the evening that one would not have derived from the string quartet repertory.
When the Guarneri did play it was quite wonderful. The other highlight was the Haydn "Quinten" Quartet, one of those late works that is almost as symphonic in its range of expression as one of the late Haydn symphonies.
Its so-called "Witches' Minuet" is one of the great Haydn movements, with a diabolical swagger that not only anticipates Beethoven works but that in the grotesquerie of its rhythms and harmonies begins to suggest the huge Mahler symphonic scherzos that would come a century later.
The huge sonority of the Guarneri was well placed. It is surely our finest quartet in richness of sound. Also, its sound carried better than that of most quartets in the center's large Concert Hall. The place isn't really right for chamber music, but last night that was no problem.
At the end came Beethoven's very early String Quintet, Op. 4. Pinchas Zukerman donned his viola cap to provide the fifth voice.
The work is not even among the finest of early Beethoven. But the slow movement, with its ascending patterns in the second subject, starts to suggest that Beethoven already was experimenting with the sense of mystery that would come to dominate his slow movements.
At the start of the program (which wound up Zukerman's very successful series of "Serenades from Carnegie Hall") there was more Stravinsky, a little Concertino for string quartet from 1920. It is rougher in texture than much of what was to come from that composer, with an occasional hint of the more full-blooded quartets of Bela Bartok.