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A Blend of Styles

November 7, 2004

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By David Bratman

A quartet of Lithuanians came to the Kohl Mansion on Sunday bearing gifts: two Viennese classics – one in the extra-large and one in the extra-small size – and a Russian souvenir of the Soviet era. It made for a nice, energizing evening's package of string quartets.

The extra-small Viennese was Schubert's Quartettsatz in C Minor, a fierce little tiger of a lone sonata-allegro that always makes me anticipate the equally wonderful following movements that Schubert never finished. (The program-note writer, perhaps feeling visionary, describes the contents of the slow movement. I'd like to visit the alternate universe where that's completed and included on programs.) The Vilnius Quartet soothed the tiger with a rich, smooth, though somewhat hollow, Romantic sound, emphasizing the lyric side that's always present even in Schubert's most dramatic moods. The players applied elegantly some touches of ritardando in the secondary theme.

Beethoven's Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132, however, was played in a restrained Classical mode that tamed its excesses as much as a touch of the Romantic tamed Schubert's. This is one of those late Beethoven quartets built on such a huge scale that you can figuratively stand in the middle of it and not be able to see either end. This is especially true of the central “Thanksgiving” Adagio, as long as many whole quartets all by itself. It's so broadly paced that a critic once compared it to a man seeing how slowly he can ride a bicycle without falling off. The group kept it manageable by taking the chorale principal sections at a pretty fair clip for a Molto adagio, strongly differentiating the Andante interludes by mood, and keeping a strong sense of line throughout. The four outer movements are mostly built on repeated rhythmic motifs, and the players' lively spirit and sense of phrasing left nothing repetitious or stodgy. The finale in particular had a Mozartean sparkle that lifted my spirits in a way I don't usually expect from late Beethoven. As a whole, the work seemed whittled down to a reasonable size without being amputated.

Vilnius String Quartet

Between the two Viennese opuses we heard Prokofiev's Second Quartet. Like most of his chamber music, it lacks the motor rhythms common in his orchestral and piano works, but it's typical Prokofiev otherwise: as angular and witty as anything he wrote. Composed in 1941 while Prokofiev and other Soviet cultural figures were being kept behind the lines in the Kabardinian Autonomous Republic (in the northern Caucasus, just west of Chechnya), it uses folk songs of the region that could have been Prokofiev's own tunes from 20 or 30 years earlier. The players' sound was suitably dryer and more brittle for this than for the Viennese works, but they still emphasized the melodic flow of the music over its rhythmic jumpiness and downplayed the composer's eccentric bowing instructions intended to simulate the sounds of folk instruments.

The Vilnius is a quartet with an interesting mixture of styles. First violinist Audrone Vainiūnaite, a founding member who's been with the group since 1965, plays loosely but with passion. Second violinist Arturas Šilale, the newest member, with five years' service, has a particularly beautiful and rich tone. Violist Girdutis Jakaitis blends with exquisite smoothness into the middle of the ensemble. Cellist Augustinas Vasiliauskas is notably rough in fast passages, and brisk and matter-of-fact in his solos. (This is not a criticism: I like a cellist who doesn't play soulfully all the time.) Yet, despite some intonation problems they perform well together, with particular sensitivity to tempo variations. A small elegiac encore by a name I didn't catch concluded the program.

(David Bratman, librarian, lives with his lawfully-wedded soprano and a wallful of symphony recordings.)

©2004 David Bratman, all rights reserved