One night, several string quartet premieres

On Thursday night, two prominent string quartets gave New York premieres. At Merkin Hall, the JACK Quartet unveiled “A Complete History...


On Thursday night, two prominent string quartets gave New York premieres. At Merkin Hall, the JACK Quartet unveiled “A Complete History of Music (Volume 1)” by Patricia Alessandrini, “Ma-a a-ba ud me-na-gin Ma-a di-di-in” by Khyam Allami. and George Lewis’ “String Quartet 4.5”. Not far away, at Zankel Hall, the Danish String Quartet paired Schubert’s “The Maiden and Death” with Lotta Wennäkoski’s new “Pige”. Our reviews were at both events.

You always remember your first.

The first live concert you attended after the initial pandemic lockdown, that is. Thus, the JACK Quartet will always hold a place in my heart. But after this outdoor performance, at the Morris Museum in New Jersey in August 2020, it was the return to a long digital streaming relationship for me and the band. So seeing them in person again on Thursday night, nearly two years later, felt like another of many happy reunions from that era.

Appearing in Merkin at the end of “Bridges,” a series presented by the Kaufman Music Center and the John J. Cali School of Music at Montclair State University, the JACK – Christopher Otto and Austin Wulliman, violins; John Pickford Richards, viola; Jay Campbell, cello – now had optimal interior acoustics to show off their stunning clarity and agility in those first three.

In the cheeky 12-minute track ‘A Complete History of Music (Volume 1)’, the quartet’s jerky, ethereal playing is electronically translated into fragments of recordings of works from the classical canon, which seem to surround hazy the live sounds.

The results could have been clearer with Empac’s ultra-sophisticated speaker system, the experimental arts center in upstate New York, where the piece was worked on earlier this month. In Merkin, a chorus could be made out in the first section – heard faintly, as if coming from a distant room. In the last section, “Appendix 2” (there is no “Appendix 1”), the electronics were still very quiet, and impossible to identify, but had a certain density, a soft sumptuousness.

A tremulous pattern passes around the four instruments in Allami’s “Ma-a a-ba ud me-na-gin Ma-a di-di-in”, gradually overlapping in waves for a sort of dark, shaggy minimalism of the old school. The piece feels shorter than its 19 minutes, the music receding and rebuilding with carefully crafted naturalness, and ending with a serene coda of slow, misty unison chords.

Before the JACK played their “String Quartet 4.5”, Lewis – the eminent composer and scholar recently named the next artistic director of the International Contemporary Ensemble – said from the stage that he wrote the piece “against complacency”, to remind audiences to “stay alert”. It’s a political posturing, but it’s also a Barnum-esque statement of showmanship, and the richly delivered 17-minute work commands attention like a ringmaster conjuring up acrobats.

Acts included sudden slips; a long cry in unison; a tiny and precious duet of small scratches between the first violin and the cello; and a passage of an almost singing Mendelssohnian delicacy. The other musicians chirped scintillatingly as Campbell’s hand slid up and down the neck of his cello, for a woozy ondes Martenot effect. Towards the end, the crisp grind gave way to ballet glazed. It was a spectacularly varied circus – and a lot of fun. ZACHARY WOOLFE

The men of the Danish String Quartet — violinists Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen and Frederik Øland, violist Asbjørn Nørgaard and cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin — are masters of juxtaposition.

Their illuminating “Prism” albums traces lines from Bach’s fugues to late Beethoven and 20th century works. Another series, “Doppelgänger”, combines Schubert’s last quartets (and his most beautiful piece of chamber music, the String Quintet in C) with creations that respond to them.

“Doppelgänger” had a delayed start in New York. Because of the pandemic, Part I will arrive here last; On Thursday, the second episode came first, with the famous quartet “Death and the Maiden” (D. 810) and “Pige” by Wennäkoski.

Nørgaard billed “Death and the Maiden” as “almost the definition of the romantic string quartet”, although you wouldn’t have guessed that at first in the band’s interpretation – a controlled build-up that turned into a tarantella sprinting and desperate.

The nickname of this work comes from Schubert’s earlier song “Der Tod und das Mädchen”, whose funeral overture serves as the theme of the second movement. Sørensen, as first violinist, was a replacement for the Virgin, her articulation at first delicate, even reluctant. As the music comes alive, it unleashes and recoils, torn between fury and misfortune; the Danish players opted for restraint, their mastery of scoring absolute but their passion underestimated.

In the second movement they reveal the power of Schubert’s pauses, notably with a patient ending, as an attempt to prolong his moment of peace. It couldn’t last forever, however: at the coda of this tarantella finale, here impressively cohesive amid increasingly frantic chorales and unstable leads, Death arrives in a sudden minor-key turn, delivered with grandly romantic way.

“Pige” (Danish for “Girl”) shifts Death’s focus to the young girl. As the response bits go, this one reflects less on the quartet — though nods abound, as in a version of Schubert’s long-short-short rhythm — and more on the original song. Schubert’s quartet never quotes the verse of the Virgin, which finds its place in the first movement of “Pigge”, a series of phrases that begin and disintegrate into vaporous fragments and fading arpeggios.

Throughout, Wennäkoski balances expansive technique and expressive lyricism, sometimes layering the two, but bringing the instruments together to affect the rests. Then comes the brilliant, episodic finale, “The Girl and the Scrapbook,” which kicks off with upward flourishes and a laid-back reference to Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” In the final bar, the cellist (Schubert’s voice for Death in the quartet) tears a sheet of paper — “slowly and continually,” the score says, to a forte.

The group followed “Freeze” with a transcription of “Der Tod und das Mädchen”, a simple treatment with a touch of frost in the trilled harmonics. It could have been a cookie, but the Danish players came back with another arrangement: from “Der Doppelgänger”, the namesake of the series.

They called it “one of Schubert’s best songs”. I agree, and add that it’s also one of his most terrifying, which they’ve teased relying on its harmonic ambiguity for a tension almost as disconcerting as the thought of death itself. same. JOSHUA BARONE

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