Ehnes Quartet makes a sensational Schubert debut

By Lawrence Budmen

James Ehnes' quartet performed an evening of Schubert Wednesday night at FIU.

The Ehnes Quartet made its South Florida debut before an enthusiastic audience Wednesday night at Florida International University’s Wertheim Performing Arts Center. Presented by Friends of Chamber Music, the ensemble offered two late masterpieces by Franz Schubert with guest cellist William DeRosa joining the group for the Quintet in C Major.

James Ehnes, the quartet’s leader and namesake, is one of the finest violinists on the contemporary concert scene. He has picked a first-rate group of colleagues, each with high-profile credits. Violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti is former concertmaster of the Oregon Symphony and Florida Orchestra and director of the Robert McDuffie Institute for Strings at Mercer University in Georgia. Detroit Symphony principal cellist Robert deMaine and violist Richard O’Neill, a veteran New York freelance player, complete the lineup.

Ehnes’ patrician artistry and superb musicianship set the standard for the quartet. The tonal refinement, tight ensemble and deeply perceptive performances are remarkable for a recently formed group. Moretti’s silky tone, O’Neill’s light, elegant playing and deMaine’s dark, rounded sonority are matched by a nearly flawless standard of musical precision. Based on this performance, the Ehnes Quartet is headed for the top tier of chamber groups.

Schubert’s Quartet No. 15 in G Major was written in 1826, two years before the composer’s early death at 31. The score is filled with bold contrasts, dark clouds relieved by moments of Viennese lightness. Ehnes and his colleagues attacked the opening Allegro molto moderato with impassioned fervor. The repeated triplets were absolutely precise, the players maintaining a sense of suspense before the initial theme took wing. DeMaine’s flowing, aristocratic cello solo, over plucked strings, was imbued with romantic intensity.

The Andante switches to the key of E minor, a march-like melody turned wistful. Here the interplay between instruments was wonderfully achieved, a sense of smoothly flowing line pervading the music-making. Reminiscent of Mendelssohn, the scherzo exuded feathery lightness, the tempo and rhythm perfectly synchronized and maintained. Ehnes and deMaine blended felicitously in the duet passages of the trio. While there were moments of gleaming lightness in the final Allegro assai, the quartet’s taut, sinuous reading brought the dark undercurrents to the fore. The blazing fire and beautifully sculpted playing of the performance brought cheers from the enthusiastic audience.

The great Quintet in C Major is Schubert’s final chamber work, written two months before his death in 1828. A profound score, the quintet’s turmoil mirrors the composer’s final days. Yet Schubert was artistically at the top of his form, producing a unique masterwork. Instead of a second viola favored by Mozart and other composers in string quintets, Schubert added an extra cello.

DeRosa seamlessly blended with the ensemble. His finely calibrated musicianship matched deMaine’s elegance in the cello duo of the first movement, an interlude in the otherwise intense emotional rollercoaster.

The sublime and tragic Adagio was assayed with marvelous depth of expression and poignancy. A deep sense of tragedy pervaded the players’ measured approach to the trio of the Scherzo in contrast to the robust energy of the outer sections. The country dance of the final Allegretto flowed graciously, the coda taken at a fierce clip. Schubert’s iconic final chords resounded strongly and emphatically, a suggestion that tragedy lurked beneath the movement’s bucolic charm.

Posted in Performances

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Thu Apr 26, 2012
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