Tuesday night, the Jasper String Quartet played a “sandwich program,” one with two easily digestible works surrounding a more “troublesome” piece. It was a method that the Juilliard String Quartet (among others) used as a way of introducing unfamiliar works by Elliott Carter, Arnold Schoenberg or Anton von Webern to folks attending their concerts, bracketing a less comforting score with works by more familiar composers.
Placing Bela Bartok’s String Quartet No. 5 between Joseph Haydn’s Op. 33, No. 3 quartet in C major and Felix Mendelssohn’s Op. 44, No. 1 quartet in D major did no harm to any of the works on the program. The contrasts were well handled and did honor to the composers.
Haydn’s piece and its five opus siblings were published in 1782 and inspired Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to write a set of six quartets dedicated to the older composer that was published three years later, in 1785. The grace notes, which helped provide the piece with a nickname (“The Bird”), fluttered appropriately and one could see how this well-crafted work would be attractive to the polished amateur quartet players of Haydn’s day. But the Jasper’s approach to this work, while pleasant, didn’t seem to touch deeply on how or why this particular score may have impressed Mozart so much.
Bartok’s string quartets are now an established part of the modern canon and they’ve been embraced by many ensembles, but hearing them in performance is still a rare occasion. They maintain the capacity to unsettle listeners not used to their frequent use of folkloric acidity.
In a preconcert talk, Sam Quintal, the group’s violist, noted that, “It’s an amazing piece, and we really love it.” The results of their playing reinforced what Quintal said, especially in the work’s two slower movements where they embraced the composer’s writing, transferring his directives into emotion-packed sounds.
The Mendelssohn quartet was created during the same time that the composer began contemplating his E minor violin concerto. While the musicologist John Horton once noted that the work “… looks back to Haydn rather than forward to Beethoven,” the joyous, bubbly writing of the first movement (marked Molto Allegro vivace) seems closer to the Romantic ideal of Beethoven than the Classical model provided by Haydn. The first movement was bracing and piquant, while the second had a more restrained feel, the third edged ever closer to Beethoven’s world and the finale was a whirling, joyous closer.
The standing ovation which greeted the closing of the concert was quite likely influenced by the Jasper String Quartet’s take on Mendelssohn, which was borderline brilliant.
The Bartok quartet which closed out the first half of the evening had also received a similar ovation although the number of audience members honoring their playing was smaller, a result that may have reflected more on the composer’s musical recipe than the well-crafted execution of said recipe.
Jasper String Quartet
Tuesday night in Kleinhans Music Hall