The Chiara String Quartet presented at the Metropolitan Museum the rousingly successful New York premiere of a work they commissioned and, together with fiery clarinetist Todd Palmer, a classic of the Romantic repertoire.
Contemporary composer Pierre Jalbert‘s sixth string quartet, entitled “Canticle,” begins with the ringing of small crotales, tiny cymbals that produce bell-like tones. The crotales return in the last of the piece’s seven short movements, bookending a work that indeed often feels reverential, glorifying the aesthetic possibilities of violin, viola, and cello. The first movement’s swelling chords felt visual, as if depicting moving water, clouds, and flickers of light. The firm rhythms of the second came to an abrupt and playful finish. Both movements display a distinctive sonic palette not reminiscent of anything I’ve heard before.
In the scampering pizzicatos and surprising glissandos of the “Scherzando” the musicians displayed the exceptional rhythmic and tonal concordance that has made their “Bartók by Heart,” “Brahms by Heart” and other concerts so outstanding. Marked “Ethereal,” but with an anguished middle section, the next movement relied on questioning harmonies and a sweet, longing melody from cellist Gregory Beaver, who also produced arcs of leaping harmonics in an effect I think I’ve heard before only from the turning of a knob on an analog synthesizer. Though it drew gasps from the audience, it was not a mere trick but an essential part of the music. Jalbert’s work comfortably integrates the deeply emotional and the playful.
The hard drama of the fifth movement brought Led Zeppelin to mind, while unexpected rhythmic variations dissolved the sixth’s march tempo in interesting ways. Redolent chords and sweet violin melodies define the elongated final movement, where the crotales reappeared, this time rung with a bow instead of a mallet for a very quiet subtle effect, summoning, as it were, the spirit of the night to close the piece’s multicolored hymnic progression. I loved both the whole piece and the performance; both expressed whimsy, assertiveness, and romance.
The romantic element led easily into Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115, with Todd Palmer joining the string players for a lively but insufficiently deep performance. Mr. Palmer’s silvery tone became perhaps a little too steely in the high register to mesh ideally with the strings; in certain disharmonious-sounding ensemble passages in the first movement I strained without success to distinguish anything actually out of tune. What bothered me was, I think, something about the collective tone, or a feeling that the musicians weren’t synchronizing well on a purely artistic level. The performance captured the darkness of the movement’s heart-stopping themes and volcanic harmonies, but without getting its hands sublimely dirty as Brahms’ score requests.
These problems mostly lifted in the slow movement. Played with much rubato, it felt disquietingly out of time, an effect I imagine Brahms appreciating. Palmer’s plunging runs flowed like molten silver, and the unforgettable melodies glinted like Egyptian amulets through the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium. Yet, like the first movement, the second didn’t move me to tears, as this piece has in the past.
The musicians assimilated Brahms’ romantic spirit more organically in the third movement, with its rolling, dancing rhythms and the light yet sad footsteps of the scherzo, and in the variations of the finale, where, seeming to delight in the music’s rich and multifaceted inventiveness, they generated palpable excitement.
In the end, the audience responded almost as enthusiastically to the familiar Brahms as to the new Jalbert, and the evening was as an overall success. I wondered whether it was simply lesser familiarity with the score that made this Brahms less satisfying than the Chiara’s by-heart performances of the same composer’s (or Bartók’s) string quartets. When they’re at the top their game, their sensibility is as attuned to the Romantic style as to the modern. Here, reading from the score, their Brahms failed to sing as masterfully as it might have. Maybe they’ve become so adept at playing from memory that reading snuffs a bit of the fire from their spirit. Or maybe it was so only in this instance. In any case, these superb musicians set a very high bar for themselves, and I look forward to seeing them reach for it again.