Whether it was Haydn, Schubert or Mendelssohn, the Leipzig String Quartet reached some sublime heights in its concert Tuesday at Washington’s United Church (Die Vereinigte Kirche). For most of the evening, the players (former principals of Leipzig’s celebrated Gewandhaus Orchestra) maintained a tight, guarded unity of purpose in music that demands intense concentration. It is not an easy assignment to clarify the structures of Haydn’s Quartet in D, Op. 20, No. 4; Schubert’s in A Minor, D. 804, Op. 29; and Mendelssohn’s in E-flat, Op. 44, No. 3.
For Haydn’s fourth quartet of Opus 20 (the “Sun” quartets), the popular label “Sturm und Drang” tells the whole story. The Leipzig’s powerfully controlled bows, sense of accord and intelligent phrasing missed none of the composer’s violently fluctuating temperament, bringing sudden jolts — in tempos, textures, key and mood — coursing through each movement. (These jarring shifts resemble the quirky stylistic shock waves in the music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Haydn’s older contemporary and a son of Johann Sebastian Bach.) The final two movements were charged with the enticing, dancelike pulse of gypsy music that Haydn would have heard in the Esterhazy Palace now in Hungary, where he spent decades directing and composing music.
But it was the quartet’s gripping account of the Schubert that was the most engrossing. The Leipzig precisely pinned down the foreboding undercurrents in the opening movement, defined by an accompanying motif suggesting the kinetic image of a water mill prominent in many of the composer’s songs. In the nostalgia-coated Andante, the ensemble delicately traced Schubert’s gentle “Rosamonde” theme; and, in the Minuetto, the quartet dug deeply into the rustic rhythm of a Laendler, ancestor of the Viennese waltz. After an intermission, the players whirled through the Mendelssohn with the composer’s signature brio and sweetness, giving full voice to the music’s orchestral scope.
Porter is a freelance writer.