Excellent chamber music is on offer every season in Washington, but this month, in less than a week, three relatively new, high-profile ensembles, from Amsterdam, Munich and Los Angeles, made auspicious Washington debuts.
On Jan. 19, the Library of Congress series brought Camerata RCO, whose members are players in Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw, a fixture on shortlists of the world's greatest orchestras. Violinist Annebeth Webb, violist Jeroen Woudstra and cellist Maartje-Maria den Herder joined clarinetist Hein Wiedjik in an ingratiating performance of Hummel's 1808 Clarinet Quartet. Their understated approach made the music's robust character and vivid humor all the more appealing, demonstrating why Hummel's chamber music is enjoying something of a renaissance these days.
After intermission, violinist Marc Daniel van Biemen replaced Webb, and the forces were augmented by bassoonist Simon Van Holen, Fons Verspaandonk playing French horn and Rob Dirksen on double bass, for Beethoven's well-known Septet, Op 20. In contrast to Webb's warm, mellifluous violin sound and leadership-by-example, the razor-sharp edge of van Biemen's sound, which at times seemed to cut through, rather than blend with his colleagues', lent the Beethoven a less relaxed atmosphere. But it also had the advantage of moving things along in a six-movement work lasting more than 40 minutes. This was a satisfying evening of sophisticated, expressive music making with a precision ensemble as snug as the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
Sunday, Phillips Music presented the Munich-based Goldmund Quartet in the ballroom of Anderson House. These four young men, violinists Florian Schötz and Pinchas Adt, violist Christoph Vandory, and cellist Raphael Paratore, captured all hearts from the first measures of Haydn's Quartet in G, Op 54, No 1, which fairly burst with intelligence and wit. Their to-the-manner-born ease with the rhetoric of Viennese classicism readily translated to the second of Beethoven's 'Rasumovsky' quartets in a performance that was well integrated, lean, and searingly intense.
High-octane intensity was front and center as well in Shostakovich's 1946 Third Quartet, filled with the familiar tropes of Soviet resistance and victory in the "Great Patriotic War," resuscitating this now well worn musical narrative.
The Goldmund's technical approach, deep, long bow strokes with plentiful vibrato, could be described as somewhat backward looking. Many bow hairs were plucked during the course of the Shostakovich and Beethoven. But with maturity, they will surely realize that a lighter touch in both technique and programming will not compromise the urgency of their musical message.
Finally, Wednesday, as part of the Fortas series in the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, came the most anticipated of all: violinists Jeffrey Myers and Ryan Meehan, violist Jeremy Berry and cellist Estelle Choi, the Calidore String Quartet. They are part of a groundswell of superbly trained, vibrant young string quartets, think Dover, Brooklyn Rider, Attacca and others, whose uncompromising standards have invigorated the classical music scene in recent years.
Calidore's program included Haydn's "Lark" Quartet, which seemed like a walk in rural Hungary at dawn; "Officium breve in Memoriam Andreae Szervánszky," the third quartet of György Kurtág, which could have been the discovery of 15 perfectly formed tiny sand dollars during a moonlight walk on the beach; and Brahms'sQuartet in C minor.
Four more individual musicians are unimaginable, yet these speak, breathe, think and feel as one. Having heard them, I'm convinced that, if placed in different rooms but within earshot, they could begin and end a complicated late Beethoven quartet in perfect accord. Their delivery is relaxed and perfectly natural, creating a soundscape that the audience beheld in breathless silence. They seem to love their instruments, rather than forcing them or tearing them up. But make no mistake, this simplicity of utterance conveys a complete, complex, and powerful message. The grateful audience left enriched and, I suspect, a little more human than it arrived. The Calidore Quartet is something else.