Talk about going out on a high note!
The Ehnes Quartet closed the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s 2014 Winter Festival on Sunday, delivering musical goods of such incisive perfection that the players seemed more like messengers from the gods than mere mortal interpreters of Beethoven, Bartók and Ravel.
The concert concluded a string of seven shows that didn’t always draw full houses (though Friday and Saturday night were certainly well-attended). The word was out on the Ehnes Quartet, however, and there wasn’t a seat to spare.
Officially, this was the quartet’s “debut,” even though SCMS artistic director James Ehnes (violin), Amy Schwartz Moretti (violin), Richard O’Neill (viola) and Robert deMaine (cello) have appeared in this same lineup regularly in past SCMS festivals.
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The reason they’re dubbing this their debut is 1) they’ve finally settled on a name for themselves and 2) they’re about to launch an eight-day tour through the U.K., Netherlands and France, including stops at Wigmore Hall in London and the Louvre in Paris.
The Europeans are in for a treat.
The first half of the bill paired Beethoven’s String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 74 (better known as the “Harp”) with Bartók’s String Quartet No. 3.
The foursome brought a warm, burnished sound to the quartet’s lyrical opening, soon flecked by chord attacks so sharp they were almost crunchy. In the pizzicato passages, as melodic lines were passed note by note from player to player, it really did seem a single mind was operating all four instruments. The performers’ impeccable clarity and verve set the tone for the whole afternoon.
After the slow second movement, with its shifts in mood between tranquil and mournful, the finely etched fury of the Presto led directly into a theme-and-variations finale, where the wildly different guises and moods that a simple chord sequence can produce were startling.
The Bartók, from 1927, is his shortest and densest quartet: a mini-encyclopedia of unusual string techniques that include string-tapping, sliding pitches and bowing touches that lend an eerie electric sound to the strings. It needs absolute precision for its “special effects” to work — and it got it.
Mastering its mercurial shifts in time and timbre, the Ehnes Quartet found the balance needed between folk rhythms and harsh abstraction to make the whole thing gel and even dance at times. (Bartók, after all, wasn’t just a composer but a passionate ethnomusicologist, preserving Eastern European traditional tunes.) String Quartet No. 3 won the first of the concert’s standing ovations.
Ravel’s String Quartet (he only wrote one) was the last official item on the program, and from its opening movement, with its slippery harmonic turns and quicksilver ripples and trills, it was clear the French composer’s early chamber masterpiece was in authoritative hands. It was preceded by Suk’s “Meditation on the old Czech Chorale ‘St. Wenceslas’,” a brief work clearly not in the same league as its companions on the program, but it did serve as a fine setup for a joke.
No sooner had Ehnes, Schwartz Moretti, O’Neill and deMaine made their exit after it than they were back on stage, resuming their seats for the Ravel — with Ehnes wisecracking to the audience, “No time to waste.” (The 1 p.m. concert was scheduled to finish just before the Super Bowl started.)
After a huge standing ovation for the Ravel, Ehnes again had fun with those who had their eyes on their watches. When someone called out to ask what the encore would be, he settled back into his chair and in a leisurely professorial tone began, “I’d like to take this moment to — ” before announcing the actual piece: Hugo Wolf’s “Italian Serenade,” which the four players served up as a winsome walkabout for strings.
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com