With a personnel change, Ehnes Quartet continues to delve deep into Beethoven

By Lawrence Budmen

The Ehnes Quarte performed Tuesday night at Coral Gables Congregational Church for Friends of Chamber Music.

The Ehnes Quartet performed Tuesday night at Coral Gables Congregational Church for Friends of Chamber Music.

The Ehnes Quartet’s performances for Friends of Chamber Music have been among the finest concerts presented in recent South Florida music seasons.

Continuing their cycle of Beethoven’s string quartets, violinist James Ehnes and his colleagues returned on Tuesday night. Playing for a nearly full house at Coral Gables Congregational Church, the players again demonstrated that they are one of the best chamber ensembles on the current concert scene. Although each of the group’s four musicians maintains busy orchestral, chamber, teaching and solo performance schedules, when they come together for annual concert tours their music making is on the most exalted level.

The quartet has recently had a personnel change, with cellist Edward Arron replacing Robert deMaine who left the ensemble last year. On the basis of the performances at Thursday’s concert, not only does Arron blend well with violinists Ehnes and Amy Schwartz Moretti and violist Richard O’Neill, his playing and teamwork actually raise the ensemble’s already high artistic standard.

Despite the numbering assigned by the publisher, Beethoven’s Quartet in D Major, Op. 18, No. 3 is actually the first of his sixteen works in that genre. It is less frequently performed yet presents Beethoven at his most gracious and spirited. There was plenty of vigor in the initial Allegro with this ensemble’s distinctive strength and unanimity of attack at the onset of thematic phrases strongly evident.

They brought astringency to the more fierce moments that foretell the more mature Beethoven. The main motif of the Andante con moto is one of Beethoven’s characteristically serene and noble melodies, and was shaped expansively. Ehnes’ plush tone in the solo lines never overpowered the group’s corporate voice. There was a plethora of brio and lightness of touch in the Presto finale.

The Quartet in F Major, Op. 135 is one of Beethoven’s final works. The late quartets are some of his most original and monumental creations. Even today they transcend their early 19th-century origins, striking paths that are surprisingly modern.

The Ehnes foursome beautifully detailed the final quartet’s shades of light and dark. Unexpected melodic turns and sudden eruptions of volume were incisively articulated. Sparked by Ehnes’ lithe touch, the Vivace was vivacious indeed. There was darkness, gravitas and wonderful interplay of tonal colors in the Lento and a vivid contrast of timbres in the ensuing Allegro, driven at high speed.

After the drama of that final chamber opus, the Quartet in F Major, Op. 59, No. 1–the first of the Rasumovsky quartets–provided a more lyrical finale to the concert. Arron’s burnished and sonorous tone launched the score’s opening melody, which was then molded by Ehnes in an almost bel canto manner.

Throughout the opening movement, the players evidenced a real musical conversation. Individual solo lines were tossed between the instruments, the players intently listening to each other and responding in a seemingly natural and organic manner. The Allegretto sparkled and Ehnes’ patrician phrasing brought out the inspired melody and underlying tension of the Adagio. Terrific corporate virtuosity was on full display in the concluding Thème Russe. Finely varied and transparent dynamics enhanced the high powered reading.

Repeated curtain calls brought the players back for a perfectly chosen encore–the Allegro molto finale of the Quartet in C Major, Op. 59, No. 3 -, the final of the three Rasumovsky scores. O’Neill’s rich-toned viola opened the movement at rapid speed. Part Bachian fugue, part 19th-century hoedown, the music’s vibrant pulse offered a final demonstration of the players’ dexterity.

The Friends of Chamber Music season continues with a recital by pianist Benjamin Grosvenor featuring works by Schumann, Beethoven, Mozart, Scriabin, Granados and Liszt 8 p.m. February 16 at Coral Gables Congregational Church. miamichambermusic.org

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Wed Feb 8, 2017
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