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What’s in a Title?

New York
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
02/20/2010 -  
Robert Schumann: String Quartet in F Major, Op. 41 No. 2
James MacMillan: String Quartet No. 3 (New York Premiere)
Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet in E Minor, Op 59 No. 2 (“Razumovsky”)

Takács String Quartet: Edward Dusinberre, Károly Schranz (Violins), Geraldine Walther (Viola), András Fejér (Cello)

The very accomplished James MacMillan has a tendency to give long, usually liturgical titles to his music In fact, three of his four string quartets have fairly long titles, ranging from the mystical to intimations of the Jewish Passover .

The New York premiere of his Third String Quartet, played by the splendid Takács Quartet last night, was the rare “anonymous” work, so may I suggest two titles, from Walt Whitman’s When Lilacs Last In The Dooryard Bloom’d?

One title would be “For fresh as the morning–thus would I chant a song for you, O sane and sacred death.” Another might be: “Here! Coffin that slowly passes, I give you my sprig of lilac.”

Not that I believe James MacMillan can compare with Walt Whitman in the emotions of death. But this Quartet, with its plaintive Hebrew chant at the beginning, its séance for the middle and its most mysterious ending for solo violin, is obviously about death. Possibly a celebration, possibly a Whitmanesque chant, possibly a dirge. All three in a 25-minute piece which was always interesting, if not always profound.

That first movement, titled “Molto rubato” starts with a Jewish-style plaint (though a friend said it could also be medieval Scottish). The movement develops nicely, but that mysterious chant is always in the forefront, sometimes bouncing, sometimes uttered or passed around from one player to another, reaching a finale of clustered strings.

The second movement I call a séance, but it is jolly séance, with Mahler-style irony, a lot of taps, knocks and the appearance of ghostly emanations. The program calls this “Largo”, but the tempo was rapid indeed.

The finale, called “Patiently and painfully slow” was an elegy or perhaps an homage. First Violin Edward Dusinberre played here a solo of dazzling beauty, while the other strings slowly rose from the bass regions to a kind of heavenly high.

What dear Mr. Whitman called “dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising….”

Enough of the Good Grey Poet. Mr. MacMillan’s Third Quartet is a lovely piece, with its own enigmas and mysteries. Hopefully other ensembles will pick it up (the Takács Quartet gave the world premiere), and we can try to solve them.

The opening Schumann quartet needed no title, though one might steal a Schumann piano piece and call it “Bunte Blätter” (Colored Leaves). The work is charming and sweet, and was played with a buoyancy by the Takács Quartet. The group has just two of its original members, Károly Schranz and András Fejér, but they have an organic wholeness which is rare for even the most experienced groups.

Younger ensembles (Takács was formed 35 years ago) shine and glitter, but this group begins with a comfort level and then soars into whatever stratosphere they need. Schumann’s music is very much “heart-on-the-sleeve”, and this work was played with a heartfelt happiness.

The Takács Quartet has what I consider the finest Beethoven “Razumovsky” recording, so hearing them in the flesh was a special treat. The cascades of the first movement, with its wonderful little coda was continued with a very intense slow movement. So intense that the motif we all listen for in the Scherzo–yes, this is the Boris Gudonov coronation tune–was a good respite.

The Takács basically danced through the finale. But they could have taken any pace at all. The secrets of their greatness have musical solutions. But to these ears, this group is fresh, refreshing, and ever splendid. By the way, this was the second of three Takács concerts this season. The next, on April 18, has more Beethoven, more Schumann and the New York premiere of John Psathas’ A Cool Wind.

CODA: Martin Scorsese is the most meticulous and imaginative film director since Stanley Kubrick in his choice of music. Scorsese’s newest movie, Shutter Island, is by far his most ambitious project, and modern music buffs might try to spot the excerpts from Penderecki, Ligeti, Schnittke, Feldman, Cage and Eno. Not so modern but playing a very important part of the drama is a recording (supposedly circa 1954), of Mahler’s Piano Quartet.

On second thought, viewers shouldn’t “try to spot” the music. The film is so gripping, haunting, surprising–Scorsese’s best movie for several decades–that it should be seen on its own merits. When viewing it a second time, you can hear how the music helps to “make” the film.

Harry Rolnick



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