Beethoven’s music comes alive in Ehnes Quartet’s evolutionary recital

By Lawrence Budmen

James Ehnes, Amy Schwartz Moretti, Edward Aaron and Richard O’Neill (l-r) are winding down their multi-year run through Beethoven’s full string quartet catalogue in conjunction with the composer’s 250th birthday.

The Ehnes Quartet’s complete traversal of Beethoven’s string quartets for the Friends of Chamber Music has brought some of South Florida’s most deeply probing, musically scrupulous concerts in recent years. As the celebration of the 250th anniversary of the titan from Bonn’s birth becomes the focus of music making worldwide, the quartet’s cycle is reaching its conclusion. On Tuesday night the ensemble took the stage at Florida International University’s Wertheim Performing Arts Center in Miami for the penultimate program in this multiple season exploration.

The group’s four players (violinists James Ehnes and Amy Schwartz Moretti, violist Richard O’Neill and cellist Edward Arron) maintain busy solo, orchestral and chamber music performing careers. (Ehnes will solo in Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto with Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony this weekend.) While the quartet is not a full time venture, it can hold its own with the best string groups on the current concert scene and can surpass many of them. 

As in previous outings, the musicians played works from each of the three periods in Beethoven’s creative life. The String Quartet No. 6 in B-flat major immediately displayed the foursome’s warm and burnished corporate sonority. The dialogue between instruments emerged crisp and freshly scrubbed with a full range of dynamics from near whispered pianissimos to full-force playing at top volume.

Ehnes’s tonal sweetness and stylish phrasing carried the long spans of Mozartean melody in the Adagio ma non troppo second movement. The tricky rhythm of the trio section in the Scherzo was articulated with spot-on accuracy, the entire third movement resounding at brisk pace. The dark, unsettled musical lines that open the last movement foretell the Beethoven that is to come, and the quartet tossed off the finale’s Allegretto quasi Allegro was with feathery grace and minute attention to individual instrumental details. 

Ehnes’s mastery of his instrument while blending seamlessly with his colleagues was fully evident in the solo phrases of the initial Poco adagio-Allegro in the Quartet No. 10 in E-flat major (Harp). The quiet, sublime theme of the second movement was so precisely coordinated that the four strings sounded as one. A veritable tornado of syncopated power engulfed the Presto in which Beethoven’s personal voice takes full wing. Alternately broad and incisive, the concluding variations were perfectly pitched. The almost cello-like sound of O’Neill’s viola took solo honors.

Beethoven’s final quartets broke new ground, the harmonic complexity and terse strokes for each instrument far removed from the scores of Haydn and Mozart. In the opening section of String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat major, the players’ unerring sense of pulse imbued Beethoven’s striking changes of meter with formal logic and continuity. 

The deep undertow of Arron’s cello mingled with the outwardly aristocratic paths of the Poco scherzoso. The Ehnes Quartet’s rendition of the Alla danza tedesca was a revelation — in less patrician versions, broken phrases miss the music’s long-limbed eloquence. Here the movement sang in one elongated paragraph, each instrument’s voice allowed to stand out. 

A deeply felt Cavatina was prelude to the fugal conclusion: Ehnes opted to play Beethoven’s more concise and intimate fugue, which was his final composition, rather than the dense and astringent Große Fuge originally scored for the work. A lively collective attack on the main subject heralded the x-ray clarity of each voice. Absolute fidelity to the score and mastery of ensemble timbres resulted in a performance that seemed to be creating the music anew – a tribute to Beethoven’s bold originality and artistic spirit.

Friends of Chamber Music presents the Apollon Quartet playing Suk’s Meditation on an old Czech Hymn “St. Wenceslas,” Beethoven’s Quartet in D Major, Op. 18, No. 3 and Kevin Kenner’s transcription of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Kenner as soloist, 7:30 p.m  Saturday at Temple Beth Am in Pinecrest.; 305-372-2975.

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Wed Jan 29, 2020
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