The American String Quartet at Maverick

As a quartet (or any musician/band for that matter), you can either fade in time and not have the enthusiasm you once had, or you can retain the spark that made you want to play in the first place and ignite it further as you grow and develop. The American String Quartet is a fine illustration of the latter. They have been playing together for 35 years, and have an ease with one another. That ease translates into their interpretations of the music they play, which is vibrant and leaps from the page. Beloved at Maverick Concerts in Woodstock, NY, they returned there this year to play a stellar program:

String Quartet in D major, Op. 76, No. 5
Joseph Haydn

Largo ma non troppo: Cantabile e mesto
Menuetto: Allegro
Finale: Presto

String Quartet No. 3
Béla Bartók

Prima Parte: Moderato
Seconda Parte: Allegro
Recapitulazione della Prima Parte: Moderato
Coda: Allegro molto

String Quartet in D minor, D. 810, “Death And The Maiden”
Franz Schubert

Andante con moto
Scherzo: Allegro molto

Haydn’s quartet has richness of sound, strength, beauty, and charm. First violin gets to show it’s virtousity in the first movement, and there are interesting counterpoints between all the instruments. In the Largo second movement, first violin once again gets the majority of the attention, as does second violin. The roles of cello and viola are vital, however, and after the music goes through a change, they both also get their time. Eventually returning to the golden opening, the movement is brought to a close. The lively Menuetto third movement is in waltz time, and soon gives way to the final movement. The Finale is continuously darting, moving swiftly as it rises and plummets. The dynamics add a great deal of excitement and personality to the music, and the American String Quartet’s delivery was a delight, their timing spot-on. That is obviously always important during any piece, but less than perfect timing would simply devastate the last movement of Hadyn’s quartet.

Bartók’s Quartet No. 3 is intense and startling. For people who don’t like his music to begin with, it is one of Bartók’s more progressive works. All the music he wrote is multi-dimensional, and Quartet No. 3 is exceptionally so, as well as being slightly futuristic — amazing, considering it was written in 1926! Although Bartók’s music is certainly not similar to anything Ravel or Debussy wrote, it is impressionistic in it’s own way. I for one always get lost in his textures, use of harmonies and dissonance, and the extra’s he adds to his pieces, such as the tapping of instruments for percussive effects, slides, and plucked or muted strings. All the parts of his quartet flow into one another, and before you know it there’s silence; the descriptive story told through musical notes has come to an end.

Schubert took his inspiration for  “Death And The Maiden” from a poem by Matthias Claudius, which you can find at the bottom of this post. It is one of my favorite works for string quartet by any composer, and I felt it was a fitting piece to close what was my last Maverick concert for the season (note: although I will not be attending either, there will be one more regular concert at Maverick on Saturday night, by the Maverick Chamber Players, followed by a Friends Concert on Sunday, open to anyone who became a “friend of Maverick” this year by making a monetary donation of fifty dollars or more). “Death And The Maiden” opens dramatically, eases back, then flashes dramtically again with meaningful chords. Even if you didn’t know the poem or the title of the quartet, you would be able to hear the duality between the powerful and the subdued, the gentle and the forceful, the dark and the bright, and the constant struggle between those that takes place during the piece, which the American Quartet brought alive in all it’s gloomy glory. The music of the first movement — and all the others, for that matter — is cloaked with a sense of inevitability. We hold out hope during the more tender passages, but ultimately know that doing so is useless; the darkness is too overpowering in it’s beckoning manner, and one can only resist for so long before eventually succumbing. First violin’s sad melody is accentuated by the other instruments’ expressive sorrow, and the music is dance-like at times, perhaps reflecting a pas de deux between Death and the maiden. The second movement is much sadder than the first, and is a solemn procession of sorts. The music then soars, but does so while bound in chains. It’s a doleful flight, a tale breathed for the winds to carry, a farewell to innocence and laughter. Death itself, as represented in the music, is not cruel but complicated, and the mood becomes more and more desperate. After a slight pause, all is brought to the light of day for a little while, spinning freely. Shortly after, the cold grip slowly takes hold again, creeping and choking in an effort to be understood. The joyful parts are weaker and weaker as the movement’s close draws near, snuffed to almost silence, but still faintly struggling to hold on. The last few notes are nothing more than a whisper. I’ve already established that the quartet itself is one of my favorite’s, but among the movements of the quartet, the fourth is probably the one I love the most. Once you hear the melody you’ll never forget it… The riders of Death are clearly heard descending at the opening, and still a struggle ensues, pressure mounting. A driving force drills the music deeper into despair, and the maiden in the tale is not the only one taken captive; as a listener, you are as well. Increasingly crazed, it’s a race to the end, which leaves you breathless. Death is (almost) always seen as the enemy, but with Schubert’s mastery, one can’t help but be moved to try to understand the complexity of what it stands for. The best music evokes some sort of emotion from the audience, and Schubert’s quartet is one of the best of the best. It was truly an experience to hear the American String Quartet play it  — one I won’t soon forget.

Stay away! Oh, stay away!
Go, fierce Death!
I am still young, please go!
And do not touch me.

Give me your hand, you beautiful and tender vision!
I am a friend, and come not to hurt you.
Be of good cheer! I am not cruel,
You will sleep softly in my arms!


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