WASHINGTON, October 11, 2013 – As we inform our readers nearly every autumn, the DC edition of the Young Concert Artists (YCA) Series at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater is one of the best tickets in town. Paralleled by YCA’s series in New York City, its home base, an inexpensive ticket to YCA recitals here invariably introduces area audiences to many of the upcoming classical talents of tomorrow before you’ll have to pay top dollar to hear them in a few years.
While YCA was for many years dedicated primarily to solo performers, it’s branched out in recent seasons, also showcasing the work of up-and-coming young composers and musical ensembles.
YCA’s October 8 recital here showcased the work of the newish, Paris-based Hermès Quartet, an ensemble that views the performance and promotion of French compositions as their primary and distinguishing mission. They’ve already attracted a good bit of attention to their work, as evidenced by their execution of a musical hat-trick: they’ve already copped first prizes in YCA’s International and European Auditions as well as another first in the 2011 edition of the Geneva (Switzerland) International Music Competition.
The Quartet originally formed at the Lyon Conservatory where its four founding members first met. Consisting of violinists Omer Bouchez and Elise Liu, violist Yung-Hsin Chang, and cellist Anthony Kondo offered an eclectic program for their DC audience, highlighting French compositions by Debussy and Dutilleux in the first half of their program, while offering a pair of unusual selections—Schubert’s “Quartettsatz” in C-minor, D. 703, and Verdi’s almost never-heard Quartet in E-minor.
The Quartet’s performance of Debussy’s Quartet in G-minor, Op. 10 was crisp, efficient and intriguingly acid-etched around the edges. We’re not quite used to hearing this composition played in quite this manner, but the Hermès ensemble’s take on the work gave it a modernist reading that didn’t seem far-fetched, and it’s not often that one experiences this sensation.
The Dutilleux, which followed, his suite “Ainsi la nuit” (“Thus, the Night”)…well, Monsieur Dutilleux, we must confess, has never quite been our cup of tea. The composer passed away just this spring, less than three years shy of his 100th birthday, and he’s regarded by many French classical musicians as a 20th century treasure. But his mostly Second Viennese School and postmodern canon is filled with nervous, twitchy, itchy sounds that, while perhaps intellectually challenging can never really be defined as enjoyable, which is, in our opinion, an apt description of “Ainsi la nuit.”
That said, you take what you get and see what you can make of it. In this case, while the suites’ seven pin-pricky movements produced little aural pleasure, it was, in fact—no criticism implied or intended—fascinating to hear and witness the cascade of bizarre and interesting sounds the Hermès musicians picked, plucked, scratched, or otherwise cajoled out of stringed instruments no doubt crafted by makers who remain blissfully unaware of the strange potential hidden within their creations. The quartet tossed off these difficult effects with aplomb and it was easy to see that they enjoyed the results of their not inconsiderable efforts.
After the intermission, the ensemble returned to more standard fare, but with a different twist. Everyone who enjoys classical music and opera is familiar, perhaps overly so, with the brilliant work of masters like Franz Schubert and Giuseppe Verdi. But they’re not necessarily acquainted with the two works the Hermès Quartet chose to conclude their recital, the Schubert “Quartettsatz” and the Verdi Quartet in E-minor.
As the Kennedy Center’s program notes pointed out, the “Quartettsatz”—aka, “Quartet Movement”—is just that, a single movement of a string quartet that was never finished, à la the composer’s equally unfinished “Unfinished Symphony.”
One never knows why a composer doesn’t finish this or that, and no one is verifiably certain why Schubert didn’t finish this nonexistent quartet. But we still have this lovely, moderately familiar and very Schubertian piece, likely the first movement of the phantom quartet, and the Hermès Quartet gave it a perfect, fluid, drawing room reading with enough interest and immediacy that it made one wish to be transported back in time to one of young Schubert’s legendary musicales on every available occasion.
The ensemble concluded its recital with yet another odd but interesting choice in their selection of the Verdi Quartet. Many opera aficionados are likely unaware that this work even exists—indeed, this reviewer confesses he doesn’t recall it and doesn’t ever recollect hearing it.
But that said, the composer created his quartet in the oddest of ways, apparently writing it to kill some time while he dealt with vexatious difficulties and delays in Naples involving the premiere of his latest opera, “Aïda.” (So it’s not too surprising that we catch a snippet or two of “Aida” hiding in this quartet.) After an initial performance of the work, however, he refused to allow its publication. Fortunately, he relented a few years later, which is why we still have it today.
The Verdi quartet is an odd creature, technically conforming to the appropriate forms but often taking—surprise—a distinctly operatic route in both the thematic statement and development. Thus, for a quartet, much of this one consists of high drama, particularly the boldness and operatic tension that pulse through the quartet’s second movement whose innocent sounding tempo—andantino—provides cover for plenty of Italian-style sturm und drang.
Contrasting with this movement is the following, fast-paced third movement, a trio marked “prestissimo.” Things move along here, but not too rapidly—pausing for a few moments for a refreshing glass of wine during the slower, lightly and delightfully romantic intermezzo, as it were—then picking up the pace and dashing toward the concluding finale.
Oddly marked “Scherzo—Fuga,” that’s precisely what this finale is, a brisk, moderately combative yet playful movement that engages the ghost of Old Man Bach with a good old-fashioned fugue, not dissimilar to the equally surprising vocal fugue Verdi later employed in his final opera, his rollicking Italian take on Shakespeare’s beloved “Falstaff.”
The Hermès Quartet had at least as much fun with the Verdi as they did with the Dutilleux, and the Terrace audience rewarded them with an ample round of applause. In turn, the Quartet returned for a brief encore with a charming excerpt from a Haydn Quartet, Op. 76, No. 5.
Rating: ** ½ (Two and one-half out of four stars)
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