Name yourself after the biggest planet in the solar system, and you’d better be ready with some pretty celestial playing. That — at least at times — was what the Jupiter String Quartet delivered Sunday at the Phillips Collection, in a program that contrasted shimmering works by Mozart and Schumann with Bela Bartok’s driving, intense and darkly explosive Quartet No. 4.
The evening opened with Mozart’s Quartet No. 14 in G Major, K. 387, a piece inspired by Haydn’s pathbreaking Op. 33 quartets. It’s an effusive work that lays on the charm from beginning to end, and the Jupiter players gave it a playful, lighthearted reading — with a slight glitch. The closing movement builds to a furious pitch, and in a teasing Haydn-esque touch, Mozart offers what seems to be the triumphant ending — before revealing the real, much quieter close. But the audience burst into such enthusiastic applause at the “false” ending that the players, after waiting for a moment with bows poised, finally just shrugged, smiled and ended the piece right there.
“We rehearsed it that way!” cellist Daniel McDonough said with a laugh, before giving a quick introduction to the mix of folk influences and deep-reaching symmetry in the next work, Bartok’s Quartet No. 4. There’s little discernible playfulness in this vast-feeling quartet — perhaps Bartok’s greatest — and its intricate web of motivic connections, mirror-images and constant reweaving of material is both daunting and fascinating. Opening with a dense and driven opening, it sweeps across an arc of two scherzos and a shadowy middle movement, before dancing itself nearly to death in the full-throttle close. The Jupiter gave it a characterful, illuminating and utterly committed account.
Robert Schumann wrote only three string quartets before giving up the form — not (to these ears, anyway) a terrible tragedy for this most pianistic of composers. But there’s a lot to like in the lyrical quartet in A Major, Op. 41 No. 3, which closed the evening. An engaging work full of Beethoven-ian echoes, it stays in easily fathomable depths and is undeniably lovely. The Jupiter turned in a stellar — planetary? — reading that had the audience on its feet by the end.