The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet delivers a perfect program of superb music by Haydn, Mozart and Schubert

February 5, 2018
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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 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.

By John W. Barker

While snow may have restricted the audience attending the Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) on Saturday night, those who came were amply rewarded with a virtually perfect program of superb music.

The program brought together three Austrian works, two by those Classical-era titans, Franz Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and the third by the Austrian early Romantic Franz Schubert.

The combination of the first two was particularly stimulating, an opportunity to reckon how different from each other were these composers who are so often bracketed together.

The E-flat Quartet is No. 3 in the Op. 50 set that some commentators have viewed as the response by Haydn (below) to the set of six quartets that Mozart had recently published in Haydn’s honor.

Deliberately, Haydn chose to avoid matching Mozart’s lyricism and rich imagination, turning instead to statements of strength in austere textures.

Composed in 1790, a year before his death and only three years after the Haydn work, the Quartet in B-flat, K. 589, by Mozart (below) was his penultimate quartet, part of a series to be written for the King of Prussia who played the cello, which is featured prominently in the quartet.

Here we have a Mozartian style that is expansive and exploratory. Amid music of great lyric beauty and even vivacity, we have a Menuetto third movement whose Trio, or midsection, is remarkably dark and ambiguous. (You can hear a period-instrument performance of the third movement in the YouTube video at the bottom)

The Pro Arte players brought out the individuality of the two different styles quite beautifully. To my ears, the viola lines were delivered with notable strength and color by Sally Chisholm.

The final work, and the longest, was one of Schubert’s amazing late quartets. The No. 13 in A minor, D. 804), from 1824 is known as the “Rosamunde” Quartet because the second movement is the elaboration by Schubert (below) of the lovely melody in the well-known interlude in his incidental music for the play of that title.

Despite a somewhat moody first movement, the work as a whole is suffused with Schubert’s very special, very personal lyricism. Analyses of it can be instructive, but ultimately this remains music for the soul, not just the brain, I think.

The Pro Arte understands that well, and gave a generous demonstration of its beauties.

It proved such a wonderful concert, for which we can only give warm thanks to the UW-Madison’s Mead-Witter School of Music where the Pro Arte Quartet has been an artist-in-residence since World War II.


Classical music: Which are the most famous and most popular string quartets? And which ones are your favorites?

May 26, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Does The Ear ever love chamber music!

And it has been a good few days for him and for other Madison fans of string quartets.

On Saturday night, The Ear heard the Ancora String Quartet (below) in outstanding performances of the “Dissonance” Quartet by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the late String Quartet No. 13 in A Minor, “Rosamunde,” by Franz Schubert.

Ancora CR Barry Lewis

Then on Monday night, the Ear heard the terrific Rhapsodie Quartet (below top, in a photo by Greg Anderson), made up of players in the Madison Symphony Orchestra, perform the “American” String Quartet by Antonin Dvorak followed by the sublime and profound Cello Quintet by Franz Schubert. UW-Madison and Pro Arte Quartet cellist Parry Karp (below bottom) sat in as the extra cellist.

Rhapsodie Quartet MSO Greg Anderson

Parry Karp

At the Ancora concert, cellist Benjamin Whitcomb, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, made the case that Mozart’s “Dissonance” Quartet is well known for its apt nickname and is probably the best known or most popular of Mozart’s string quartets.

That got The Ear to thinking:

What are the most well-known and most popular string quartets?

And which string quartets are your favorites that you would recommend to other chamber music fans?

The Ear drew up a list of candidates of the first honor of being well-known.

He suspects that the “Emperor” Quartet — with its famous and infamous slow movement theme that was turned from an homage to the Austrian emperor into an anthem for Nazi Germany — by Franz Joseph Haydn, the “Death and the Maiden” Quartet of Schubert and the “American” Quartet of Dvorak all rival or surpass the public reputation of the Mozart’s “Dissonance,” although that one is certainly and deservedly famous to the general public.

As to The Ear’s favorite quartets: The Ear is especially partial to the six early Op. 18 string quartets by Ludwig van Beethoven (below), which often take a back seat to the same composer’s middle quartets and late quartets. But of the famous last ones, The Ear loves the very last one, Op. 135, with its return to classical structure and clarity.

Beethoven big

He also loves all of the Op. 76 string quartets by Haydn (below top) and is especially partial to the “Sunrise” and the “Quinten” or “Fifths” quartets. He also loves Haydn’s earlier Op. 20 “Sun” quartets; and all six string quartets that Mozart (below bottom) composed for and dedicated to Haydn, generally considered the father or the modern string quartet who also played string quartets  with himself on violin and Mozart on viola.

Haydn

Mozart old 1782

The Ear likes Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” well enough, but he is always blown away by Schubert’s last quartet in G major, which was used as a soundtrack in Woody Allen’s great movie “Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

He also loves the lyrical quartets on Dvorak (below), especially the Op. 51 “Slavonic” as well as the “American.” (You can hear the opening of the “Slavonic” String Quartet in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

dvorak

As for Johannes Brahms, The Ear prefers the string quintets and string sextets to the string quartets.

Francophile that he is, The Ear also loves the single string quartets by Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.

Among other modern string quartets, he loves the third and fifth of Bela Bartok, the second one by Sergei Prokofiev and the eight and 11th by Dmitri Shostakovich. He also adds the String Quartet No. 3 “Mishima” by Philip Glass.

Well, that’s enough for today and for this post.

What string quartet do you think is the most famous or most popular?

And which string quartets are your favorites?

Leave word, with a YouTube link if possible, in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Ancora String Quartet closes its 15th anniversary season with music by Mozart, Schubert, Arthur Sullivan and a mystery composer this Saturday night.

May 18, 2016
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Landmark Auditorium of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, the Ancora String Quartet (below, in a photo by Barry Lewis) closes out its 15th anniversary season with a selection of gorgeous favorites.

Ancora CR Barry Lewis

Here is the MUST-HEAR program of masterpieces by an ensemble that performs beautifully but too often flies under the radar, given how many chamber music ensembles have burst onto the local classical music scene:

The famed “Dissonance” string quartet, K. 465, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart journeys from its hauntingly modernistic and brooding opening to the most perfectly cheerful closing. (You can hear the opening in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

There will be a Mystery Piece that is billed as “a little gem of energy and drama.”

The late “Rosamunde” String Quartet in A Minor, D. 804, by Franz Schubert wafts an air of gentle melancholy.

And the program closes with a brief magical tale of long ago and far away from a man who knew how to set a scene, Sir Arthur Sullivan (below) of Gilbert and Sullivan fame.

sir arthur sullivan

Tickets at the door are $15 for general admission; $12 seniors and students; $6 children under 12.

A free reception follows the performance.

Members of the Ancora String Quartet are: Leanne Kelso League and Robin Ryan, violins; Marika Fischer Hoyt, viola; and Benjamin Whitcomb, cello.

Members of the quartet also play with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, and both violinist Leanne Kelso League and cellist Benjamin Whitcomb teach at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.


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