The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music preview: Ancora String Quartet should excel in rare Borodin and profound Schubert this Saturday night

March 10, 2011
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A REMINDER: This weekend the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras hold their Winterfest Concerts this weekend in Mills Hall. On Saturday, March 12,  you can hear: at 11:30 a.m. Harp Ensemble & Sinfonietta; at 1:30 p.m. Percussion Ensemble & Concert Orchestra; at 4 p.m. Philharmonia Orchestra; on Sunday, March 13, at 2 p.m. the Youth Orchestra. For more information go to:

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting that previews a concert to be given this Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society Meeting House by the Ancora String Quartet. It is by a frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker.

Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

A week-length trip out of town, long planned, has managed to deprive me of several important musical events in Madison during that time period. No loss is more painful than that of the concert coming up this Saturday, March 12, by the Ancora String Quartet (below).

Fortunately, however, the ensemble scheduled a kind of preview performance of their concert this Tuesday evening, March 8, at the Capital Lakes Retirement Center, allowing me to hear the program after all.

The Capital Lakes institution, by the way, with its ample yet comfortable auditorium, offers some of the too-well-kept secrets of Madison’s musical life, in the regular concerts of chamber music offered by local musicians, for the residents, but also open free to the public.

Madison is, of course, blessed by the presence of the Pro Arte String Quartet, a world-class group that regularly offers top-quality concerts on the UW campus. But Madison is also blessed to have at least one parallel group of remarkable durability and artistic merit — the Ancora Quartet (below). Their devotion to adventurous programming, in dedicated, intense performances, has made them a force to reckon with in local musical life.

This latest program is a case in point, bravely pairing two extended and demanding works.

The first of them is String Quartet No. 1 by Alexander Borodin (below). The Second, in its lush lyricism and ready accessibility, is far better known and more frequently heard. All the more reason to make a case for the First. It is a longer and more complicated work, full of contrapuntal and fugal display, combined with Slavic passion. It requires intense commitment by the players but also serious attention by the listeners — with rich rewards resulting. Its wing movements, each cast as introduction and then sonata form, frame a slow movement charged with Russian folk spirit, and a scherzo that tries to beat Mendelssohn at his own games.

There were a few tiny patches of roughness Tuesday evening that further rehearsal and final performance will surely resolve, but the players give a really satisfying rendition of a genuinely absorbing work.

The second piece is Schubert‘s stunning String Quintet in C, his final work of any importance. Schubert was one of the greatest composers of chamber music, and this work is perhaps the summit of his contribution to the genre.

Charged with alternations of unearthly beauty and agonized panic, is also a work to which I cannot listen without hearing Schubert’s all-too-human voice. He knew he was dying when he composed it. As he had done in writing his 15th and final string quartet two years before, he tried more than ever to find refuge in creativity.

And, once again, he could not help reflect the terror he felt at the ending of his long, fatal illness. The Quintet’s first movement has as its main theme a typical Schubert melody of unearthly beauty, but when it is plunged into the movement’s development section the roar of protest intrudes.

The second movement (below) embodies a floating serenity that seems outside time, but a middle section breaks out in the furious rage that lurks as if behind such a mask. When the mask is again taken up, the lower cello line continues the rumblings of complaint until it finally succumbs to acceptance.

The scherzo third movement begins as a wild orgy of peasant dancing. But the conventional middle or “trio” section becomes a grimly lamenting look into the abyss that the composer sees ahead. Again seeking escape, he plunges into the rondo finale, full of almost forced gaiety, though its inner episodes slip into a thicket of shifting keys that suggests the despair that still cannot be overcome.

As I listened, I thought of Dylan Thomas’s poem beginning, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” All that, of course, represents my own very personal reactions to this extraordinary work. Others may prefer to listen to it simply as a feast of abstract beauties. But the dark side is difficult to deny. Schubert (below) finished this Quintet in October 1828. A month later he was dead, and the score had to be published posthumously—in 1853!

As in their other performances, the Ancora players put their backs into a rendition of searing eloquence. In this, they are aided notably by a guest. Schubert made the unusual choice of adding a second cello, not a second viola, to his scoring. For that, Karl Lavine (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot, who is an outstanding colleague of three of the Ancora members in the Madison Symphony Orchestra, where is principal cello) not only joins in but digs into his part with gusto appropriate to the fact that it frequently carries “the message.”

It is not often that audiences get to hear live performances of this fabulous Quintet, especially of such power. Amid all the alternative choices to be made, music-lovers should seriously consider the definitive performance of this program this Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in the First Unitarian Society’s Landmark Auditorium, 900 University Bay Drive.

Tickets at the door are  $15 general admission, $12 seniors and students, and $6 children under 12. A champagne reception will conclude the evening.

For more information, visit:

Posted in Classical music

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