The Chiara String Quartet, whose recent Bartók concerts I covered here and here, began a yearlong residency at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last night with a concert of Brahms’s three String Quartets. As with the Bartók, the Chiara performed these spectacular works – 12 movements in total – from memory, a feat that pays rich artistic dividends.
The musicians established their interlocked feels for the ebb and flow of the music right off, with the first movement of Brahms’s String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 51, No. 2. With grace and power the musicians conveyed the piece’s mood shifts, bringing out the Romantic spirit of the music as well as the proto-Modernism in Brahms’s unexpected harmonies and transitions.
The stormy passages of the second movement, with their dense harmonies, showcased the Chiara’s exquisite balance, as fine in the Met’s large Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium as it was in Bargemusic’s small floating quarters (where I heard their Bartók). Drawing out the tension of the third movement’s haunting opening chords before racing into its Allegro vivace section, the four musicians then produced an unbelievably delicate, almost preternaturally perfect reading of the wonderful “minuet” sections. I have a couple of excellent recordings of these works, but like all music played with corporeal instruments it takes on added dimensions in concert. This was one of the moments when I felt as if I had never heard this music before.
Perhaps they chose the String Quartet No. 3 in Bb major, Op. 62, as the middle work on the program because it’s the only one of Brahms’s three string quartets in a major key. It does indeed start in a much more lighthearted way than the others, a little ruminative but not dark. Here the Chiara musicians showed their ability to negotiate rubatos and pauses as if they were a single creature. They rode the Andante second movement’s billowing clouds of harmony with precision and art, putting across the sweet strains with feeling but no treacle. Then they launched into the dramatic section, with its interlocking rhythms and counterpoint and lovely tradeoffs between the violins and the viola-cello pair, leading to a stunning soft ending. Here I was struck by how well their sound filled the hall, resonating so that with my eyes closed I could at certain moments imagine I was hearing a small orchestra complete with harp and French horns.
The third movement exemplified the point made in the program notes by Jonah Sirota, the quartet’s violist, that Brahms’s String Quartets fit “the particular temperament of our group: probing, idealistic, unsettled, fiercely equal.” (My italics.) Here the viola, often the under-appreciated middle voice, takes the lead. Sirota’s rich tone overcame the viola’s lesser resonance next to the large-bodied cello and the violins’ piercing soprano.
Brahms gave the instruments equal importance in the final movement, where each leads a variation on a theme. Then, after an intermission, the quartet returned for the String Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 51 No. 1. The minor-key first movement is awash in striking changes in rhythm, mood, and tempo, all navigated by an ensemble for whom Brahms seems second nature.
In fact it was in the course of rehearsing for a recording of the Brahms quartets that the Chiara began its course of memorization, which has now taken in many more pieces in addition to the Brahms and Bartók, including the beautiful slow Mozart movement they presented as an encore.
My sense is that by eliminating the need to refer to printed music, the musicians can move and “breathe” together with greater poise and rhythmic ease, giving works they know very well, like these, a special grace. The pastoral Romanze of the second movement flowed like sighing winds. The folk-dance middle section of the third movement commented on the first movement’s happy mood. And the fearsome tuttis of the finale rang through the hall putting an exclamation point on a fantastically well-mastered performance of this incredible music with its surfeit of riches.