The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Ancora String Quartet turns in outstanding performances of Beethoven and Shostakovich, and revives a neglected quartet by Danish composer Niels Gade

July 31, 2017
3 Comments

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 hosts an early music radio show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos for this review.

By John W. Barker

Whether as a finale to the passing season or as a prelude to the upcoming one, the Ancora String Quartet (below) favored its admirers with a fine summer concert at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Regent Street last Saturday night.

The program offered three contrasting works.

It started off boldly with Dmitri Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 7 in F-sharp minor, Op. 108, a slashing three-movement work of nervous and disturbing energy.

So many of the quartets by Shostakovich (below) are autobiographical, or at least confessional, in character, and this one is a clear expression of both personal anxieties and political apprehensions. The Ancoras tore into it with gusto.

Niels W. Gade (below) is hardly a composer of instant recognizability, but he was at the center of Leipzig’s post-Mendelssohn world and then, when he returned to his native Denmark, he became the dominant figure in its musical life until his death in 1890. This is the bicentennial year of his birth.

Gade has left us some fine orchestral music that deserves frequent hearings. And his true legacy was his advancement — if with reservations — of his prize student, Carl Nielsen.

Gade’s late String Quartet in D, Op. 63, one of his three works in the form, is steeped in the stylistic qualities of Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann, without quite extending them. Still, it is altogether a listenable work, and we can thank the Ancora players for sharing with us.

The big event, however, was the concluding piece, Beethoven’s Quartet in F Major, Op. 18, No. 1, part of his set of six that marked his brilliant debut as a composer in this form.

Meant to show his extension of the work of Haydn and Mozart in this idiom, this quartet was worked on laboriously by Beethoven, to offer a kaleidoscopic array of moods and structures.

The first movement in particular is a proclamation of his lifelong skill in creating bold entities out of the most minimal motivic material, while the third and fourth movements are hectic displays of energy and imagination.

Perhaps most striking, however, is the slow movement, supposedly reflecting Shakespearian influences. Wonderfully vigorous in all movements, the Ancoras were particularly eloquent in that dark and tragic essay that looks to the tomb scene in “Romeo and Juliet.” (You can hear the slow second movement, played by the Takacs Quartet, which will perform next season at the Wisconsin Union Theater, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It has become the custom with this group for one member to give a brief spoken introduction to each composition, and that practice worked particularly well for this program, giving the audience a comfortable sense of welcome and valuably pointing up things to listen for. (Below is violist Marika Fischer Hoyt explaining and deconstructing the Beethoven quartet.)

If you missed the concert, the Ancora String Quartet will repeat the program this coming Sunday afternoon at 12:30 p.m. for the “Afternoon Live at the Chazen” program. You can attend the concert in Brittingham Gallery 3 of the Chazen Museum of Art for FREE or live-stream it from the Chazen website.

Here is a link to the website with more information and a portal for streaming:

https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/visit/programs/#section6

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