Illumination From Exile: Alexander String Quartet

Lisa Hirsch on January 20, 2013
Alexander String Quartet
Alexander String Quartet

The Alexander String Quartet is among several local groups making a special place on their programs this year to celebrate the music of Benjamin Britten, born a century ago in 1913. Its Saturday morning concert series at Herbst Theatre, “The String Quartet at a Time of War”, pairs Britten’s works for string quartet with contemporaneous quartets by other composers whose lives were affected by World War II.

Musicologist and composer Robert Greenberg’s lectures at these events provide historical background, as well as a musical overview with accompanying demonstrations by the Alexander. His delivery and sense of humor may or may not be to everyone’s taste — I winced when he called Britten “the biggest mama’s boy since Oedipus,” especially given his forthright and sensitive discussion of Britten’s homosexuality — yet he’s a knowledgeable and popular speaker, whose talks certainly provide useful context for the music.

Saturday’s program, somewhat confusingly called “Their Finest Hour,” explored the theme of exile and featured Béla Bartók’s sixth and Britten’s first string quartets. Britten, a pacifist, left England in 1939, while Bartók, an anti-Fascist, fled Hungary in 1940 as it moved increasingly rightward, eventually becoming an ally of Nazi Germany. Desperately homesick, Britten returned to England in 1942; Bartók died in 1945, still an exile in the U.S.

The two quartets differ greatly, both in mood and in the circumstances of their composition. Bartók composed his quartet during his mother’s final illness, at a time when he was already contemplating leaving his native land. The resulting quartet is somber, ironic, and perhaps bitter; some commentators associate its second movement, an exaggerated military march, with the war and Hungary’s militarization. The work is knit together with a theme, marked Mesto (sad), that recurs in varied form as the introduction to the first three movements and the substance of the last, perhaps a reflection of Bartók’s deep (and deepening) sadness as the war approached.

The Alexander Quartet gave the Bartók a restrained and poised, even introverted, performance.

In any event, the Alexander Quartet gave the Bartók a restrained and poised, even introverted, performance, without in any way neglecting the work’s varying moods. The march had the appropriate swagger, the Burletta (burlesque) a dry wit and a hint of the grotesque. The Mesto introductions provide each member of the quartet with a solo, and each played his beautifully. A tip of the hat to Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violins, Paul Yarbrough, viola, and Sandy Wilson, cello, for their lovely playing in this and in the Britten.

Statement of Self-Assertion

As for the Britten quartet, it’s a different kettle of fish. Expansive, joyous, even exalted, it feels like a young man flexing his compositional muscles and saying, “Here I am, world.” Commissioned by the eminent musical patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge and written while the composer and his companion, Peter Pears, spent a summer in Escondido, in Southern California, the string writing is much like that of Britten’s song cycle Les Illuminations, composed just two years earlier in 1939.

The quartet’s sound positively glowed in the eerie still of Britten’s first movement opening … as well as in the gorgeously intense third movement.

Despite that familiar style, the quartet contains many novel features. In the first movement, alternating and contrasting sections hide a sonata-form structure, and in both the first and third movements Britten miraculously suspends time through harmonic stasis, though the music never loses its forward momentum. And the instrumental textures are varied, stimulating, beautiful.

Here we saw the other side of the Alexander, with the quartet’s playing proving to be an explosive and extroverted match for both the impetuous and the calm aspects of the Britten. The quartet’s sound positively glowed in the eerie still of the first movement opening, where the violins and viola hover at the extreme upper edge of their ranges, as well as in the gorgeously intense third movement. While Greenberg in his remarks compared the last movement to a Haydn finale, it’s the dryly witty second movement that most recalled that composer for me. After the great musical vistas opening up in the slow third movement, the last had some of the exaltation of a Beethoven finale.

Two performances remain in this series: On March 9, the Alexander plays Britten and Walton quartets from the mid-1940s, and on March 16, Britten and Shostakovich. If you’re a morning person (or if you simply love these composers), and you find the lecture-demo format appealing, you’re likely to enjoy spending some time with the fine musicians of the Alexander String Quartet.