The idea of hearing a string quartet play in Washington National Cathedral sounds crazy, but the building’s semi-enclosed Great Choir provides quite a backdrop for a series of chamber music concerts. The young Diderot String Quartet, formed in 2012, offered a pairing of contemporary and romantic quartets there on Tuesday evening, and while the seconds-long acoustic ring was still audible, one had enough nearness to the sound to have an intimate experience of it.
Lembit Beecher’s “Small Infinities,” a Diderot Quartet commission, was the more pleasing contemporary half. The four musicians studied in the historical performance program at Juilliard and now play on gut strings, including serving as the string section leaders in the cathedral’s baroque orchestra. The piece, conceived for gut strings, is an exploration of largely soft and subtle sound worlds through the repetition of melodic and rhythmic motifs, with programmatic titles inspired by events in the composer’s life. Glissandi and scratchy pizzicato attacks recalled Beecher’s love of repetitive listening in the first movement (“Old Cassettes and Broken Records”), trills near the bridge created the roar of surf in the fourth (“Night Ocean, With Interruptions”), and a funeral home director’s mantra (“I’m sorry for your loss”) was layered upon itself contrapuntally in the third movement.
The unreliability of gut strings, especially for keeping high notes in tune, cropped up in the second movement of the Beecher piece, where some of the metric shifts felt more than disjointed. Intonation was a much more persistent problem in Schubert’s D Minor quartet (“Death and the Maiden”), which sounded generally under-rehearsed. Johanna Novom particularly struggled on the first violin part in the Schubert, switching seats with Adriane Post, who was stronger in the Beecher piece.