Ehnes Quartet brings stylish artistry to FOCM concert

By Lawrence Budmen

The Ehnes Quartet performed a concert presented by Friends of Chamber Music Saturday night.

The Ehnes Quartet is one of the most skilled and reliable chamber music groups performing today. Their annual visits to Miami’s Friends of Chamber Music have produced outstanding concerts and Saturday night’s offering at Florida International University’s Wertheim Performing Arts Center was no exception. 

The Ehnes foursome played works from the classical and romantic eras and an infrequently programmed score from the first half of the twentieth century. Each was presented with stylistic affinity, interpretive authority, and consummate artistry.

The opening movement of Haydn’s String Quartet in G Major, Op. 77, no. 1 was marked by taut phrasing and transparency of instrumental lines. Violinist James Ehnes provided stellar leadership, with gleaming tone. The sturm und drang section of the development benefited from clarity of detail and was accorded proper weight. 

Cellist Edward Aaron’s accompanying lines in the Adagio were just as fully present and the movement benefited from the ensemble’s unhurried tempo. The Menuetto-Presto is a scherzo in all but name, and emerged brisk and ebullient in the Ehnes’ lively treatment. The players brought out the wit beneath the formal surface of the finale with articulation that was both light and fleet. Each member of the group commands mastery of their instrument, yet merges into a tightly knit ensemble which the brilliant Haydn reading displayed.

Benjamin Britten’s String Quartet No. 2, Op. 36 was written in 1945 during the last days of World War II. It was composed to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the death of Henry Purcell, the English composer Britten admired above all others. One can hear the tension and unease of the era in much of the score. Some sections register bleak darkness, in the manner of Shostakovich (who was a friend of Britten’s). That is particularly true of the third movement—a “Chacony sostenuto” that is a tribute to Purcell with a theme and 21 variations. Even the more robust strains of the opening Allegro calmo, sanza rigore are moody with a harsh edginess.

Britten played and loved the viola and he gave two extended solos to the instrument in the quartet’s final movement. Che-Yen Chan’s shining sonority and dexterity were fully equal to the opportunities. Ehnes excelled in a devilish solo turn for the violin. The players gave brilliant treatment to this ambitious revival of a rarely programmed work.

The violins of Ehnes and Amy Schwartz Moretti sounded as one in the initial phrases of Schumann’s String Quartet No. 1 in A minor, Op. 41. There was a fine sense of ebb and flow in the first movement, with the players mixing romanticism and playfulness in perfect proportion. The Scherzo-Presto was marked by vigor and gutsy articulation. Even at fierce speed, the players projected unity, supple coloration and variegated dynamics. 

The Adagio harkens back to Schumann’s skill as a lieder composer and Ehnes and his colleagues spun an expansive instrumental song. There was drama in an incisive traversal of the culminating Presto, with the playing effusive and resonant. This revelatory Schumann performance culminated a well-balanced program played with deep musicality.

Friends of Chamber Music presents the New York Philharmonic String Quartet with clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein 8 p.m. January 16, 2024 at Coral Gables Congregational United Church of Christ.

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Sun Nov 19, 2023
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