Prior to Tuesday evening my only experience with the Carmina Quartet had been via a couple of impressive recordings, one of which, Szymanowski's Quartets Nos. 1 and 2, I selected as The Buffalo News' choice for Best Chamber Music Recording of 1992.
But in spite of the high expectation this had raised, I found the Carmina's performances Tuesday evening in Mary Seaton Room somewhere between disappointing and downright annoying.
Beethoven's Quartet in F minor, Op. 95 is called "Serioso," first because the expressive marking "Allegro assai vivace ma serioso" is attached to the third movement, but also because almost the entire quartet is austere, subdued, dark and ominous.
So it didn't seem particularly out of character when the Carmina players attacked the first movement of the "Serioso" with great energy, brusqueness, punch, nervousness and not a little raucous stridency.
Crucial portions of the second movement were played in an exaggeratedly detached manner which over the longer pull robbed the music of its vitality and line, making it seem analytical, even fussy. At times the music almost seemed stopped in its motion the way a strobe light can stop action on a stage.
The quartet was back to its aggressive, choppy, over-accented playing in the Scherzo movement, and in the Finale their playing seemed very disconnected, leaving a sense that there was no center to the music. Technically, the ensemble of these four accomplished players could not be faulted. Their playing was immaculately "together," but their sound seemed to travel out to the audience in four parallel lines, rarely coalescing with a sense of focus.
Ernest Bloch's 1953 Quartet No. 3 made an interesting pairing with the Beethoven "Serioso," sharing a compactness of form, terseness of statement and even an important fugal passage in each. And of the three works on the program it was the Bloch Quartet No. 3 whose performance came closest to reaching the music's full potential.
The Carmina's penchant for strident playing was much better suited to Bloch's opening movement than to Beethoven. It's a movement which, interestingly, has resonances of the composer's 1925 Concerto Grosso No. 1, and the performance was energetic and buoyant.
In the slow movement a spacious quality was well projected, with fine control of the quieter end of the dynamic spectrum which produced effective light textures of a gossamer, eerie quality. Overall, the Carmina made the movement seem rather static, like a series of tableaux.
The Scherzo was defined by hard driven, powerful motor rhythms and a contrasting Trio section in delicate, well sustained harmonics, while the Finale's fugue with its intricate string crossing was well delineated and movement ended with conviction.
In the Beethoven "Serioso" it had seemed that the artists really understood the characteristics of the music, but then proceeded to exaggerate every one of the performing parameters to the point of nervous excess.
In the concluding Schubert Quartet No. 15 in G Major, D887 there are admittedly some tensions involved in the establishment of tonalities, but here the Carmina carried their excesses even further, virtually to the point of hyperventilating melodrama.
Schubert was admittedly stretching his former boundaries in this late work, but it still contains much of the old fashioned Schubertian "gemuetlichkeit" and heart-melting softness, qualities which the Carmina seldom allowed to peek through their tense, clenched-teeth approach to this underappreciated masterpiece.
The first movement was nervous and heaving. Only an occasional island of repose intruded on the hypertense tremolos in the badly misjudged slow movement, while the Scherzo was full of exaggerated dynamic shifts.
In the Finale the dynamic drops during even a single phrase were so extreme that often the last couple of notes simply became inaudible. There was partial redemption at the end, where a good bit of rhythmic elan was generated, but the movement, like the whole quartet, was grossly overplayed.
It was as though the Carmina felt it was playing for a neophyte audience whose attention might wander unless a high level of drama were maintained throughout. In fact, the BCMS audience is among the more sophisticated in the nation, as the relatively modest applause at the end indicated.
The guests, nonetheless, produced an encore, the Finale from Haydn's Quartet in D minor, Op. 76 No. 2, also nervous and over-detailed.
The Carmina Quartet
Featured artists on Buffalo Chamber Music Society series.
Tuesday evening in Mary Seaton Room, Kleinhans Music Hall.