Efrem Zimbalist Sr. and Fritz Kreisler, friends who shared fame as among the finest violinists of the first half of the 20th century, shared something else — they both dabbled in composing and each wrote a single romantically-infused string quartet. The venerable Fine Arts Quartet, which has espoused these rarely played pieces, has recorded them and performed them widely, brought the pair to the National Gallery of Art on Sunday along with another rarity, the two movements of the youthful Rachmaninoff’s unfinished G Minor Quartet.
To say that the Fine Arts has made the Zimbalist and Kreisler works its own would be an understatement. On Sunday night, the quartet inhabited the heart-on-sleeve longing of Kreisler’s overstuffed and sometimes slithery textures with a comfort that was as convincing as its cheerful abandon in the highly stylized dance of the quartet’s last movement. Cellist Robert Cohen’s richly shaped declamatory pronouncements in the first and last movements framed a work that had absorbed echoes of Ravel and Richard Strauss but that mostly stuck to less adventurous if more romantic enthusiasms.
There is somewhat more overt drama in Zimbalist’s Quartet, and the Slavic modality of the dark opening movement (highlighted in this performance by the gorgeous voice of Juan-Miguel Hernandez’s viola), the sedateness of the Scherzo and the energy of the Finale’s perpetual motion gave this piece a particularly piquant personality.
The Rachmaninoff fragment, a sweet first movement and a rhythmically intricate second, served as a palate-cleanser between the other two, and the encore, the finale of Beethoven’s Opus 18 No. 2 quartet, gave a glimpse of what the ensemble can do when unburdened by romantic effusiveness.
Reinthaler is a freelance writer.