Hot Ginastera comes off best in uneven Delray Quartet program

By Greg Stepanich

Alberto Ginastera

Alberto Ginastera

In its expanded program of concerts this season, the Delray String Quartet has explored music of South America, earlier with one of the quartets of Brazil’s Heitor Villa-Lobos.

On Sunday afternoon, it closed its most recent series at the Colony Hotel in Delray Beach with the First Quartet (Op. 20) of Argentina’s Alberto Ginastera, on a program that also featured music by Mozart and Puccini. It was an uneven concert overall, though that didn’t detract too much from the sheer wattage generated by Ginastera’s ceaseless tricky time signatures and propulsive rhythms.

But despite its musical growth and expansion into new territory, this is a quartet that still needs to do some work on core repertoire. That’s not to say that the example of groups such as the Kronos Quartet, which almost never does standard literature, can’t be followed here. It’s just that the Delray is a more traditionally oriented foursome, and its sense of ensemble, which is now inconsistent, would be improved if it had the canonical repertoire at its fingers.

A case in point is the work that opened Sunday’s concert, the Quartet No. 15 (in D minor, K. 421) of Mozart. This is a lovely piece, full of the melodic warmth and harmonic daring that makes Mozart’s mature music so revered. And there was much to like in the Delray performance, including a tender account of the Andante that didn’t stint on its emotional undercurrent, or the grace with which first violinist Mei Mei Luo and violist Richard Fleischman played the skipping lilt of the Minuet’s trio section.

But what was missing, particularly in the first movement, was precision and, seemingly, real familiarity with the music. The tempo was a little too slow to make the opening theme really work; it surely was taken at that pace to accommodate the faster figures that follow, but at this pace it lost all its suavity, all its profile, simply sounding tentative and under-rehearsed.

The performance was also missing most of the subtleties that mark a deep reading of the music. The transition that leads into the recapitulation is a remarkable moment of grinding minor seconds and restless motifs, but the Delray passed on its opportunities to underline that, leaving it simply a passage from one point to another, without the tension or drama Mozart clearly wrote into the music.

The Ginastera quartet that closed the afternoon’s second half was more impressive from the standpoint of sheer vigor and force, and the chugging texture and obsessive melodic fragments that characterize the first movement were received by Sunday’s audience with audible gasps. The second movement, which continues along much the same path, was shakier rhythmically, ultimately lacking the motoric consistency it needs to be ideally effective.

The slow third movement perhaps came off best, with the Delrays contributing an evocative mood of mist and stasis, while the finale was played with high spirits and a great sense of drive to the final D major chord, the only real resolution in the whole work. Cellist Claudio Jaffé offered some of the strongest playing of the concert during the Ginastera, with plenty of sweep for the big runs that rose up from the bottom note, and gripping intensity when it came time to play some of the themes in his highest register.

The Ginastera was preceded by Puccini’s Crisantemi, a moody trifle in which the quartet nevertheless sounded comfortable, and played sweetly. For an encore, the group reprised a post-concert dessert item it played a couple years ago, a 1942 arrangement of two songs by Jerome Kern – Yesterdays and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes – arranged in contemporarily soupy style by Charles MIller for the then-popular Gordon String Quartet. Here, too, the quartet sounded at ease and relaxed, which was no real surprise after the strenuousness of the Ginastera.

Soon the Delray will announce the works on its upcoming seventh season, and founder Don Thompson told the audience Sunday that music by Brahms, Mendelssohn and Philip Glass would be included. All well and good, but one hopes this talented foursome will make some time to woodshed some Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart, even if the works aren’t played in concert anytime soon. The benefits could very well be substantial.

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Mon Mar 8, 2010
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