Few would ever expect the Cleveland Quartet to forsake its acoustically splendid Armand Hammer Auditorium home for the larger, reverberant Corcoran Gallery proper. But that's what happened Friday night when the group offered the world premiere of "Quartessence" by Stephen Paulus, a composer perhaps best known locally for "The Postman Always Rings Twice" staged two seasons ago by the Washington Opera.
Paulus's five-movement, 20-minute suite, a true labor of love -- it was commissioned by a St. Paul couple to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary -- made a strong impression with engaging lyric touches economically conveyed. One could hear distinct echoes from the past in the Bartoklike rhythmic insistence, along with hints of Ravel, Shostakovich, Debussy -- even Mendelssohn in the exuberant finale. Paulus has used tradition effectively as a point of departure, and if audience reception is any gauge, "Quartessence" should enjoy a healthy future.
The inclusion of Mozart's Quartet in D Minor, K. 421 (the first of six written in honor of Haydn), and Beethoven's "Razumovsky" Quartet in F, Op. 59, No. 1, showcased the genre's noble ancestry. The Cleveland's reverent approach to Haydn via Mozart came across best in the third movement when they projected softly, without having the notes resonate longer than desired. For a group that has done its share of Beethoven cycles, the Cleveland Quartet invested the "Razumovsky" with a vitality that was, to borrow a title, absolute "quartessence."