The Slee Beethoven cycle is not only one of the most impressive series in the chamber music world, it is one of the most straitjacketed.
True, it does give audiences a set program where specific scores are played in a specific order, insuring consistency over the course of years and a scale upon which to judge a variety of quartet ensembles. This is not necessarily a bad thing.
Still, when members of the Penderecki String Quartet came onstage Friday night in UB's Slee Hall and announced that they would be playing the quartets in an order different than the one mandated by the program, the change was surprisingly refreshing and logical. Instead of placing the earliest written of the three pieces in the middle of the concert, the group played the scores from low- to higher-numbered opuses.
By playing the music in this fashion, the group allowed listeners to follow the track of the composer's artistic growth. That their performances of these works were worthy of Beethoven's compositional efforts was a true bonus.
The B-flat major quartet (op. 18, no. 6), which began the concert, showcased how Beethoven was beginning to break away from the models created by Haydn and Mozart despite flourishes that revealed those masters' influence.
The finale, nicknamed "La Malinconia," used thematic material that fluctuated back and forth, building tension that was only released by a suitably dark, short, speed demon of an ending.
Next up was the op. 95 quartet in F minor, a work that was shaped during the same period Beethoven was crafting the "Archduke" piano trio and benefited from the Penderecki String Quartet's taut, vibrant playing.
After the intermission, the concert concluded with Beethoven's A minor, op. 132 quartet, a work that received a performance by the Jupiter String Quartet on Jan. 27 as part of the Buffalo Chamber Music Society series in Kleinhans Music Hall. While the earlier recital was fine, and the work's core adagio was rendered with considerable skill, the older, more seasoned members of the Penderecki String Quartet gave the more satisfying performance, providing an emotional weight and gravity that was beautifully judged and articulated.
Friday night's program, along with the earlier concert in the current Slee cycle by the Ying String Quartet, provided some of this year's best musicmaking to date.