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Modigliani Quartet provides rare treat with Dohnanyi

The Modigliani Quartet did us all a favor in Tuesday’s Buffalo Chamber Music Society concert when they opted to conclude with the unfamiliar Dohnanyi 1926 Quartet No. 3.

The music is so attractive that it’s hard to believe this performance was its Buffalo premiere. The early music of Dohnanyi (1877-1960) was clearly flavored by Brahms and Hungarian folk influences, but this quartet is from a richer, more mature area of creativity. As a late romantic, his music was widely accepted in the early 20th century, pretty much shunned as old fashioned in midcentury, but is now being accepted on its face value. JoAnn Falletta has featured several Dohnanyi works with the BPO recently.

Quartet No. 3 often features the viola as the lead voice, giving the score a richness and warmth. In three movements, it opens with a strong chordal assertion with a demand and response quality, going on to a discursive progression that exhibits unusually ear-catching harmonic modulations and a terse rhythmic complexity.

The crown of the work is the slow movement, marked Andante religioso and based on a stately chorale. The music has a solemnity, gorgeous sonority and striking originality, maintained even through the oddly skittering waltzlike second variation. The composer reverts to his Hungarian roots in the Finale, a folk-based rondo of compelling energy and joyous lightness. The artists exuded a sense of proprietary enthusiasm, playing with both flawless technique and engaging phrasing.

It was so well received that an encore was offered, a charming and little-known Schubert Minuet.

Also convincing was Haydn’s 1797 Quartet in G, Op. 76 No. 1, where the three dramatic opening chords made it clear that this is a work for concert performance, not intimate drawing room stuff. The playing had all the needed lightness and nimble energy without diminishing its serious musical intent. The slow movement’s hymnlike quality was a wonderful warm rejoinder, while the Minuet’s presto marking made it seem more like a foreshadowing of the scherzo form to be introduced by Beethoven. The dark minor opening of the finale stood in stark contrast to the quartet’s bright G Major character, which soon returned as the artists played with jaunty enthusiasm.

Schumann’s 1842 Quartet in A, Op. 41 No. 3 has trouble remaining airborne if the performance isn’t fueled with openness, vitality and spontaneity. This one didn’t quite make it. The artists gave nice prominence to the first movement’s signature falling fifths, but the ensemble was often bottom-heavy. The scherzo was rhythmically tight and the lyric lines seemed less naturally flowing than thought out, while the molto vivace finale needed cleaner articulation.