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Bergonzi Quartet plays it safe for Beethoven cycle finale

Why do people go to concerts where they will hear music that they’ve already heard before? Why should anyone have multiple recordings of the same piece of music performed by different folks?

The answer to both questions lies in the variations that live performances and/or different musicians bring to the moment of hearing.

These are reasons why the six concerts comprising the Slee Beethoven Quartet Cycle have been worthwhile events on the Western New York musical calendar since 1955. The combination of scores written by a masterful composer and a wide variety of ensembles willing to tackle the project make for fascinating listening, especially for longtime audience members who can recall and compare performances of the past with those of the present.

This season three quartets each had a shot at two parts of the cycle; the first two concerts were by the American String Quartet, the second set was handed over to the Jupiter String Quartet, and the finale for the season became the responsibility of the Bergonzi String Quartet.

The Bergonzi musicians are talented, of that there is no question, but based upon their Friday night performance winding up the series it wouldn’t be out of the question to file their concerts somewhere towards the middle of the pack. They were safe; not as bad as the Cassatt Quartet (1998-2001) or as consistently impressive as the Tokyo Quartet (2008).

In the first quartet on the program (the youthful String Quartet in C minor, op. 18, no. 4) the group displayed a strong sense of rhythm in the first movement, following Beethoven’s directive by circling from theme to variation before tying things together, handing over the thrust of the moment to the following movements. Forgive the basketball allusion, but it all wound up with a whirlwind musical stutter-step where the players “juke,” almost stopping before quickly changing direction and going on to repeat variations, before scoring the end of the piece.

The mature beauty of the second work of the evening (String Quartet in F major, op. 135) was a testament to Beethoven’s fully developed integration of all the instruments in the quartet, continuing to focus attention on the two violins but also taking time to spread more of the melodic wealth across the sonic spectrum to the viola and cello. The interplay between the high and low strings was at its best in this performance, especially in the solemn heart-on-sleeve beauty of the third movement and the sheer vibrancy of the finale.

After the intermission, the Bergonzi Quartet returned to the stage for the end of the series – the String Quartet in E minor, op. 59, no. 2. This is a lovely work filled with the spirit of the dance, both slow and fast, that ends with an energetic flourish.

It was at this point that the concert took a slight dip. The players, for whatever reason, didn’t seem as consistent as they did in the first half of the evening. Everything was kind of comfortable, but the results seemed more rote than engaged. This didn’t stop the audience from giving the performers a standing ovation but tellingly, they waited to do so until the quartet came out for their first curtain call.