The St. Petersburg String Quartet at Maverick

There’s a magic about Maverick Concerts, the oldest continuously running chamber music festival in America. The barn sits in the midst of lively woods, a temporary haven from the outside world, and the occasional rustling of leaves under the feet of wandering wildlife can be heard between pauses in the music from within. It is there that music enthusiasts gather to witness world-class musicians in an intimate setting, and under the guiding hand of music director Alexander Platt, each year the schedule is packed with not-to-miss performances. I would devote every Sunday of my life from the end of June through the beginning of September to attending concerts at Maverick if I could — and then, or course, there are also the often non-classical concerts on Saturdays — but it doesn’t always work out that way. I missed the opening concert of the 2011 season which was performed by the highly esteemed (and Maverick regular) Tokyo String Quartet, but I did make it the following week to see the St. Petersburg String Quartet play a wonderful program:

String Quartet No. 2 in D Major
Aleksandr Porfir’yevich Borodin

Allegro Moderato
Scherzo: Allegro
Notturno: Andante
Finale: Andante – Vivace

Quintet for Bassoon and Strings
Russell Platt

I. Slow movement
II. Song
III. Still slow – fast

String Quartet No. 2 in F Major, Op. 22.
Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky

Adagio – Moderato assai, quasi andantino
Scherzo: Allegro giusto
Andante ma non tanto
Finale: Allegro con moto

Dedicated to his wife Ekaterina, Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2 in D Major is a beautiful piece. Eternally graceful, the first movement is full of splendor and greatly expresses the breathless joy of love. The melody carried mostly by violin soars about the other instruments, although it is answered throughout by either second violin or viola, while cello hovers in the background. A whirlwind of notes wrapping around the listener opens the scherzo second movement, quickly giving way to longer notes. From there, both violins and viola play a call and response of sorts, first and second violin sometimes playing as one. Eventually, the second movement ends energetically but delicately plucked. Cello is prominent in the third movement, but several bars into the music violin takes the spotlight singing high in its register, drooping with legato and vibrato. After that the two violins play a short but breathtaking intertwined duet. Rather than being dependent on one another, however, each violin seems inspired by the other and the result is a tear-evoking movement that embodies the purity of the sweetest of loves. For the final movement, after a brief introduction by first and second violin, cello and viola play ominously. The four instruments then play brightly with undertones of mystique. At times the violins play with a shifty quality in response to the shadowy persistence of cello and viola, yet at times the latter two instruments are also infused with a lightness to match that of the violins. The music is highly textured, not just in regards to emotion but also technical display, and the closing of the piece is truly glorious.

Next on the program was a piece by a contemporary composer, Russell Platt, who happens to be the music editor for The New Yorker. He is also the twin brother of Alexander Platt, the aforementioned music director at Maverick. In the words of Alexander, Russell’s work is like something you would get “if Aaron Copland came back and was commissioned to write a quartet with bassoon.” First and foremost a self-proclaimed melodic composer, this shows in Russell Platt’s music. The opening movement is deeply melodic but also very complex. There are moments of disconnect between the instruments, yet the sense that there is a deep relationship between them is never entirely lost. The movement is vaguely reminiscent of post-modernity but it’s heavily romantic in sentiment, creating emotional tension and an incredibly fascinating duality. The second movement is quite literally a song, as it was originally written for piano and voice but later transcribed for bassoon and strings, and has breathtaking harmonies that are non-traditional in structure and progression. The second movement is but a brief interlude between the first and third, however, the latter of which features a solo cadenza by bassoon. Although an unusual choice as an addition to a small chamber group, the bassoon melted surprisingly elegantly with the string quartet and added a wonderful throatiness and warmth to the music. While being very romantic, the piece is also much coarser than those considered romantic in the traditional sense. The final movement is particularly agitated and exciting, and the closing notes are rapid and intense.

The final piece on the program was Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 2 in F Major, Op. 22. The opening Adagio – Moderato assai, quasi andantino movement begins slowly, but persistent tremolos by first violin segway into a quicker section of the music. Mildly playful, the music is in pursuit of an elusive end. Near the end of the movement first violin climbs higher and higher before slowly descending, and to close the cello, viola, and second violin play three plucked notes accompanying a long-bowed note by first violin. In the second movement violin begins playing staccato notes broken by longer ones, dashing here and there, but midway through the music becomes legato and waltz-like. For a short time violin plays sweetly as the other instruments are plucked, but the music quickly returns to the opening’s dominantly staccato character and ends with sharp notes. The third movement has incredibly rich harmonies and a dense web of notes that are full of lyricism and splendor. In the moments when violin plays solo or during the pauses when there is no sound except for the echo of notes vibrating through the air a sense of emptiness if felt — as is a feeling of relief when the instruments play together in harmony once more. As the end of the Andante movement draws near the opening theme returns, drawing the listener in with the music’s warm tones that a darkness threatens to overtake. Drama is effectively created in these contrasts, and the silences again serve to create an anxiousness. The silences also cause you to cling desperately to the music as it continuously unfolds, finally closing without completely resolving. Contrastingly, the final movement gallops forward from its start, confident in its onward progression. The music is never hurried, however. A forward pull is felt, but at the same time the music is steady and content in its pace. There is a fugue-like section in the middle of the movement, but towards the end the pace quickens to a fantastic finish.

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