The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Ancora String Quartet welcomes back first violinist Leanne Kelso League and turns in an outstanding performance of an unusual program to kick off its new season. | September 21, 2015

EDITOR’S NOTE: Due to a technical glitch, a post about the Madison Symphony Orchestra principal clarinet Joseph Morris was mistakenly released earlier today. It was and is scheduled to appear tomorrow, getting posted tonight at midnight. The Ear regrets the mistake and any inconvenience.

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by 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, and who for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The Ancora String Quartet opened its new season at the First Unitarian Society of Madison on Saturday night. An immediate feature of the event was the return of Leanne Kelso League as the group’s first violinist.

(In the photo below taken by John W. Barker, League is on the far left followed by violinist Robin Ryan, cellist Benjamin Whitcomb and violist Marika Fischer Hoyt.)

Her absence on sabbatical for the past two seasons has prompted some experimentation, last season with two different guest first violinists. Each was individual, and brought individual new qualities with each shift.

But it was good to have League back again, bringing her powerful and incisive qualities of playing and leadership once more to the group.

Ancora Quartet 2015 JWB

The program was an interesting venture in relative novelties.

The opening work was the penultimate string quartet by Felix Mendelssohn (below), his Op. 44, No. 3. Mendelssohn’s chamber works, especially his quartets, are often kept in the shadows; but they deserve attention, especially this one. In E-flat major, it offers first two movements marked by stormy assertiveness. The third movement is a thing of warm beauty and slightly sad nostalgia, while the final movement seemed to establish a balance between the contrasting moods of what preceded.

The performance was superb, certainly belying the idea many have that Mendelssohn was just a lightweight composer. This is powerful music. That the Ancora performance was so strong and passionately articulated certainly owed a lot to League’s renewed participation.

mendelssohn_300

The surprise of the program, though, was the second of the three quartets by Ernst von Dohnanyi (1877-1960, below). The chamber music by this Late Romantic or Post-Romantic Hungarian master is not often performed and recorded, but the Ancora performance made it clear it should be heard more often.

In D-flat major, this quartet dates from 1906, and shows its roots well back in 19th-century traditions. Its three movements are filled with beautiful melodiousness amid busy aggressiveness, and the work is, in effect, a kind of debate between such opposed spirits. (You can hear the lovely third movement in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

The members of the Ancora — who also play with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra — gave it a superbly committed, convincing rendition. More, please!

ernst von dohnanyi

Finally, the quartet played one of the few chamber works by the Viennese Hugo Wolf (1860-1903, below in 1902), famous for his German Lieder or art songs. The Italian Serenade is certainly his most recurrent concert work, a piece of durable froth that is always a pleasure to hear, and provides an upbeat way to end a program.

Hugo Wolf 1902 photo

The Ancora String Quartet is scheduled to return on May 21.

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