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Masterly Mendelssohn

July 15, 2008

The American Bach Soloists began, 20 years ago, as an ensemble formed by tenor and conductor Jeffrey Thomas specifically to perform the Bach choral/vocal works. If the group branched out rather rapidly in other directions (including, most famously, a Beethoven Ninth Symphony at the 1994 Berkeley Early Music Festival, recorded live and subsequently issued on CD), still it has tended not to stray far from home in more than one direction at once. Instrumental Baroque music and vocal non-Baroque music both have their place in the ABS repertory — the latter, indeed, an expanded place in the past few years, as Thomas has pushed his singers into the more demanding sectors of the 20th-century choral repertoire. But non-Baroque, purely instrumental music just isn't on the usual ABS beat.
Yet at ABS' summer extravaganza, Summerfest, the rules loosen a little. Last year's recital of 19th-century string chamber music — crowned by what was, by all accounts, a magnificent Mendelssohn Octet — emphasized the lusher (and louder) end of the repertoire.

The only-a-string-quartet program occupying the corresponding spot this year suggested a retrenchment, a gentle drawing back. But Mendelssohn, again the core of the program, once more got his due. Sunday evening at Belvedere's St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, the ensemble's longtime home, four ABS instrumentalists built a program around quartet music from opposite ends of Mendelssohn's all-too-brief composing career.

In the sense of "large-scale pieces with opus numbers," there are six Mendelssohn string quartets: Opp. 12, 13, 44 (a set of three), and 80. But then there are the bits and pieces before and after. From the composer's early teens came a variety of short contrapuntal exercises and also a big, four-movement Quartet in E-flat Major from 1823, not to be published for another 55 years.

And then there are the orphaned quartet pieces collected posthumously as Mendelssohn's Op. 81: two from 1847, the year of the composer's death; one from four years before; and a forlorn fourth from 16 years before that.

Not long ago, the existence of these "extra" quartets was almost literally academic. If you were a quartet player, you probably knew, after a fashion, that there was something called "Mendelssohn's Op. 81," because there the pieces were, taking up the last pages of your Peters Edition parts. But on actual concert programs they were vanishingly rare (though not as rare as the early E-flat Quartet, which isn't even in the Peters Edition set).
Mystery Quartet
Things have changed enough in the last 15 years or so that when I saw that the ABS players were offering Mendelssohn's "Quartet No. 1 in E-flat Major," I didn't know whether to expect that unnumbered 1823 quartet or the 1829 Op. 12, which happens also to be in E-flat and which bears the lowest opus number among the "canonical six." Meanwhile, the Op. 81 works are almost repertoire staples by now, showing up on programs either as a (somewhat motley) set of four or, as with this ABS program, in installments.

The ABS quartet's E-flat "Quartet No. 1" turned out, somewhat to my relief, to be Op. 12. I'm as flabbergasted as anyone by the 14-year-old Mendelssohn's skill in 1823, but the guy who wrote this work five years further on was simply a masterly quartet composer. Though the piece doesn't bang you over the head with its genius, like the Octet, it remains astonishing. Mendelssohn's models are dead obvious (Beethoven's "Harp" Quartet is the biggie, though the Scherzo of Cherubini's First Quartet figures in there too), yet by the time he has done with them, you are hearing the models as implicitly "Mendelssohnian" rather than the reverse. Not many composers of any age can work that trick.

The ABS performance of Op. 12 was the kind of playing you expect, but don't necessarily get, from an ensemble of accomplished individual players like this one. You noticed both the quality of the ensemble playing and the individual excellence of the players, though the things apt to stick in your head were collaborative moments, little gestures from one player to another or to all.

There's a little burble in the viola a few bars into the first movement's Allegro, for example — a thing that can be submerged in the texture as pure "accompaniment" or, to the contrary, made to surface decisively as a miniature "viola solo." Elizabeth Blumenstock — infinitesimally hesitating, ever so slightly forward — ruffled the stream of the music without splashing. It was so deft and so genial that it's hard even to say how it was done.

It was also, it's true, uncharacteristically reticent for the Blumenstock whom Bay Area audiences know and love, and so her playing was all evening. I found myself unable to decide whether the cause was a naturally quiet instrument or a conscious decision to be a "team player," carried a little too far. A bit of both, I think: Blumenstock didn't seem to be making the amount of sound that watching her bowing would suggest, but even so she did also appear to be moderating her fire.
Impressive Colleagues
Her colleagues were less circumspect. Tanya Tomkins, the cellist, was an imposing presence everywhere. Even at her quietest she contrived to suggest bedrock stability, while at its most powerful the sound had a thrilling edge. The violins were also strong, if distinctly unlike — Carla Moore dashing and incisively articulated as ever, Adam LaMotte superbly sustained and deep of sound.

LaMotte was the first violin in Op. 12, and he handled that demanding part magnificently, scampering (in the second-movement Canzonetta's trio section) as attractively as he sang, and adding wry little touches of bow and finger to his lines. (Three times through weren't enough for me to figure out the secret of that sweet, Kreisleresque portamento he worked into the Canzonetta's first strain.) LaMotte's a relatively new figure on the Bay Area early-music scene, and not one I've gotten to hear individually before this recital. On this basis he's a violinist I would like to hear again, and soon.

Moore led the Andante con variazioni (No. 1) and Scherzo (No. 2) of the Op. 81 pieces. Both works are gems — the first a sweet theme and variations erupting into tumultuous minor at one point, and then relaxing back into serenity, the second one of those uncannily whirring little scherzos that Mendelssohn spun off with some regularity. I could have wished for more sheer bravado from Moore in parts of the variations (and more tone from Blumenstock in the viola-led first variation), but the Scherzo was as casually droll as its ensemble was tight.

That the rest of the program seemed like the garnish around the entree was probably inevitable, though it was hard to escape the impression that the Mendelssohn Op. 12 had gotten the lion's share of the rehearsal time. Schubert's Quartettsatz, with LaMotte as first violin, received a taut and vigorous performance to lead off the second half. I couldn't help feeling, though, that it fell between two stools — not ferocious enough in the opening music to justify the relative straightness of the lyrical sections, nor effusive enough there to make up for the relative tameness of the bristly bits.

And Beethoven's Op. 18/3, led by Moore, got one of those performances where everything is right but the mechanics. Musically speaking — intentionally speaking, if you will — it was genuinely lovely. It was full of wit and tenderness and the kind of joy in the interplay of rhythm and meter that seems to come so much more readily to contemporary "period" players than to "modern" ones. And it did Beethoven the justice of startling us where he obviously meant to startle. I don't think I've ever felt so delightfully bewildered at the point when the finale's texture suddenly dissolves into a swarm of little three-note motives — or so struck by that passage in the same movement's coda when Beethoven lets his "Jupiter" Symphony Finale Envy all hang out.

Still, considered as professional quartet playing, the performance was rather a mess — roughly balanced, imperfectly together, and sometimes alarmingly out of tune. I suspect that some of these things will improve in subsequent performances (the program repeats on Thursday in San Francisco, and on Sunday in Davis). But the Mendelssohn — Op. 12 in particular — already shows what these four can do as a quartet.

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

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