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In Loose but Fantastic Formation

October 14, 2008

There was half an hour to go before the concert, but if you happened to be standing outside St. Mark's Lutheran Church in San Francisco at 3:30 on Saturday you could hear them. Just a few highly trained people, a few feet apart, yet formidably strong and utterly fearless — powering through their chosen medium at alarming speed and with frightening precision ...

New Esterházy Quartet

What, the New Esterházy Quartet canceled and the Emerson Quartet filled in at short notice? No, silly, I'm talking about the Blue Angels. The six stunt-flying F/A-18 pilots, in town for Fleet Week, appeared to be using St. Mary's Cathedral (across the street from St. Mark's) as a sighting landmark, so that early arrivals to the New Esterházys' all-Haydn program got an unexpectedly, not to say unnervingly, close demonstration of precision diamond-formation flying. The Angels' performance was over by the time the NEQ's began, though I gather that the thunder from the skies played merry hell with the quartet's sound check.

For most people, great string quartet playing isn't quite as impressive as great formation flying, even where the level of control involved is similarly superhuman. There are good reasons for that. For one thing, most folks don't listen to string quartets. For another, when a string quartet player does something unexpected on a whim, ordinarily no one dies.

That was a good thing Saturday. Between the mechanical failures (unstable gut strings, slipping pegs) and the not-always-consonant instincts of the players, a precision-flying exposition arranged in imitation of the New Esterházy program would have been the sort of thing for which you'd make sure your life insurance was paid up before attending.

But, then, so would an expedition into any strange and wonderful wilderness. And the New Esterházys, as so often during their trek through the complete Haydn quartets, proved infallible guides even where they were fallible players, through a part of the quartet repertoire where beaten paths are few.
Haydn Sings Out
This program, the first of the NEQ's second season, was titled “Haydn at the Opera,” with the focus being on slow movements that savor of the stage. Two of these — in Op. 33/6 and Op. 1/2 — are pure arias, with the first violin doing the singing. In the other two, though, there's something more like a full operatic scena, with the diva/first violin breaking into (wordless) recitative.

In the Pantheon of nicknamed Haydn quartets, Op. 17/5 sometimes makes an appearance as “The Recitative.” Op. 20/2 belongs to a set none of whose quartets, astonishingly, has ever gotten a nickname that stuck. (Among the general public, that is — if you refer in the presence of veteran quartet players to “that juicy C-major one with the cello part,” most will know which you mean, apart from a hardcore-Haydn-geek few who will be thinking of Op. 54/2.) The New Esterházys themselves call it “The Mad Scene,” which is apt.

It was this work that came last, as it should have done. Even apart from the slow movement, it's a piece crammed with riches, beginning with the luxuriant cello solo that opens the first movement and ending with a fugal finale that almost bursts with Haydn's peculiarly genial sort of ingenuity. (It's a four-voiced fugue with four subjects, and an al rovescio — that is, inverted, with the bits that went down in the original now going up, the bits originally going up now going down — flourish toward the end.)

And that slow movement is an amazing creation, for its time or any. The theme is a jagged unison line, later harmonized as a cello solo (William Skeen, here, was magnificently poised) with pulsing chords above it, and interrupted continually by theatrical outbursts from either the first violin or all four players. There's an interlude like an embryo aria, but the unison stuff breaks in there, as well, and after a couple of attempts to restart itself, the music runs directly into the next movement.

Lisa Weiss was the first violinist for both this and the G-major Op. 17/5, which meant that she had the afternoon's instrumental recitative to herself. If the Op. 20 quartets are beloved of string quartet players, everything before them tends to be written off; I doubt that anyone apart from Saturday's ensemble has performed even one of the Op. 17 quartets publicly in the Bay Area in the last two decades.
Meat on the Bones
The Op. 20 quartets are special, being uncannily rich. Yet hearing Op. 17/5 makes you realize how much the reputation of Op. 20 depends on its meaty cello parts. This quartet doesn't let the cello (or the viola) off the leash nearly so much as the Op. 20 quartets do, yet all the quirkiness of Op. 20 is in there: the playful messing around with meter; the abrupt and sometimes jarring harmonic shocks; the trick of doing the same thing just enough times that the first time something else happens, you can't help but grin.

Kati Kyme was the first violin in the other two quartets, which seemed a fair division of labor: Weiss, the more forceful personality, for the scenes of emotional turmoil, and Kyme, the more suave, for the sweet singing. In Op. 1/2, her aria was (as violist Anthony Martin pointed out in his preperformance remarks) a light thing, almost an open-air serenade. The entire quartet plays a couple of phrases pizzicato at the end of each strain, as though the singing lover at the window had stopped to echo his song on a mandolin. In Op. 33/6 the aria is more serious business, though Kyme remained her elegant, infallibly persuasive self.

For the rest: Well, this was quartet flying in loose formation: both joyous and alert, but never so militantly alert as to stifle the joy. True, there were a few missed leaps and fuzzy unisons and not-quite-together arrivals. There was also the sort of dynamic nuance that implies a lot of thinking about the music. (Menuets, which get played through three times, always got some sort of new shaping by the NEQ the last time through.)

And there were places where everything did come together, and suddenly you couldn't hear the music any other way. I think I'll cherish for a long time the NEQ's insinuatingly feline version of Op. 20/2's main fugue subject.

If you want to hear Haydn quartets as they were meant to be heard, the only real course is to find three string-instrument-playing friends and perform them yourself. Or, if you want to hear them played immaculately, there are always the quartet-equivalents of the Blue Angels. But if neither option appeals, there is the New Esterházy Quartet — with four concerts remaining to its project. The schedule is here.

Michelle Dulak Thomson is a violinist and violist who has written about music for Strings, Stagebill, Early Music America, and The New York Times.