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Old Lyme — Through its 20-plus years, Musical Masterworks has embraced the festival-style of chamber music programming: Get a bunch of musicians together and mix them up, like a chef's ingredients, to prepare trios and duets and quartets and all sorts of ensembles to be served up in tasty courses.
In its final program of the season, to be repeated at 3 p.m. Sunday, Masterworks jumped back a generation or two to the days when a string quartet, like Juilliard Quartet or Guarneri Quartet, would roll into town and perform a program, naturally, of string quartets … three of 'em.
Saturday evening, the Old Lyme chamber music series went back to the three-by-four format, with a twist: The very talented quartet was ad hoc, put together for this short tour. And the result was anything but slapdash.
Joining the series artistic director and resident cellist Edward Arron were violinists Aaron Boyd and Jesse Mills (a very welcome return for a Masterworks veteran) and violist Che-Yen Chen, he of a robust, earthy tone and knowing touch. The programming moved from the lightest of lightweights — a Paganini first violin showpiece — to a heavyweight champion, Beethoven's String Quartet in C Major, the renowned Opus 59, No. 3.
This May concert at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme is always bittersweet. The trees and gardens on Lyme Street are bursting with spring, dusky daylight fills the hall, yet it is season end for music lovers. But the performances were transporting.
The program opened with Paganini's String Quartet in E major (originally for guitar and strings), the composer's rescoring of one of his 20 quartets for string trio and guitar, a blending of strummed and bowed sounds greatly popularized a generation earlier by Boccherini. It is the closest thing to a violin concerto you'll hear in a chamber concert, full of flash and dash for the first violinist.
The first violinist was Boyd, and he elicited a big ovation for his delight in the bounce bowing, sliding, spikey cadences and torrents of sixteenth notes that are virtuosity for its own sake. His confreres tricked him by staying seated in the applause, letting him take a solo bow … but that, of course, was what it was all about.
Next came that unique work, Janacek's 1923 String Quartet No. 1, called the "Kreutzer Sonata." Written in a blaze of passion in just a week, this quartet is something of a model for Post-Modernism: It was inspired by Tolstoy's novella which was inspired by Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 9, known as the "Kreutzer Sonata" — a response to a response.
Built of what Janacek called "speech motives," short bursts of sound and rhythm patterned after Czech speech, it seethes with drama, the musical representation of what Arron described as "terror, jealousy, rage and catharsis." The performance was riveting.
Full of argumentative passages, rich and pungent harmonies and quick cuts, the score was served up as a sonic experience. The dialogue was often interrupted by nasty, bone-dry sul ponticello bowing at the bridge, especially in the later movements when first violinist Mills drew long, sweet lines as the heroine of Tolstoy's story. The final movement, which opened like a nocturne and struggled through to a passionate violin duet, summed up the drama, in which we were allowed no final release.
And, as Arron noted, what could be a more fitting conclusion to any season than the Beethoven quartet known as "Razumovsky No. 3?" From its meditative opening, full of ambiguity and doubt, the work arced through some of Beethoven's finest writing to its propulsive finale.
With Mills again in the first seat, the first movement erupted in its joyous main themes, full of virtuosic passages for first violin and cello that made the Paganini showiness seem, well, silly. The quartet wrestled with its push-pull of rhythmic imperative like four men possessed.
The second movement andante did justice to some of Beethoven's most inspired writing. Full of mystery and haunting turns of phrase, the always evolving melodic line was a living, breathing thing in their hands. It opened with Arron forceful in one of the strongest pizzicato passages in the literature and wove an endless spell of ineffable ambiguity, the cheery little rising figure that captures the mood rescuing it from the darkness. When the movement ended, several musicians were tentative in turning the page in their score, as if fearful of breaking the spell.
The odd, lilting minuet movement was a respite before the attacca final movement, the hair-raising moto perpetuo fugal finale, full of explosive accents and thrust and parry, that is the heroic Beethoven at his best.
It was a fitting end to another wonderful Musical Masterworks season … the only downside of the coming of spring.