The New Orford String Quartet, formed in Canada in 2009, had a mixed debut at the Phillips Collection on Sunday afternoon. The quartet gave a nearly note-perfect performance in two monuments of the string quartet literature from the later careers of Haydn and Beethoven, but beneath the immaculate sheen, the music didn’t always come to life as it should.
In the first quartet from Haydn’s Op. 76 set, the musicians were at their well-blended best in the Adagio sostenuto. The opening movement was on the frenetic side, with pleasingly crispy articulations, and the finale was taken too fast for the triplets to settle in place comfortably. The somewhat acerbic Menuetto also was heavy handed, although violinist Andrew Wan carried the calmer trio’s violin solo with ease.
Beethoven’s Op. 132 also turned strident in the fast movements, with Jonathan Crow broader but not as refined on his turn at first violin. In the central “Heiliger Dankgesang” movement, an ill-considered decision to play the slow sections almost entirely without vibrato tested the group’s intonation and clarity of tone. By the fifth movement, the violins lost some of the bloom at the top of their range and the cello sound turned muddy.
A new string quartet (No. 2, “Journal”) by Tim Brady came off as particularly weak in proximity to these two masterpieces. The Canadian composer, also an electric guitar player, relied on the rock music-like repetition of simple motifs in a series of seven rather basic vignettes. If you’ve ever wondered how classical string instruments would sound plucked with guitar picks, Brady tried it, creating a tinny sound harder to hold in tune. Seeming to run out of ideas and looking for a conclusion to the piece, Brady should have perhaps gone with the tried-and-true pop music fade-out.
Downey is a freelance writer.