24 November 1998
On Friday, Nov. 20th , the Vranitzky String Quartet (as they like to spell it) made their debut at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Seattle. Personnel: John S. Kim, violin I; Hyekyung Seo, violin II; Thane Lewis, viola; and Rich Eckert, cello.
This event impressed me strongly on two counts: The group is clearly an accomplished ensemble, and it brought some very interesting and worthy music to light.
The concert opened with Haydn's quartet in F Minor, Op. 20, No. 5. This is, of course, a fairly well-known piece, and by pure chance I had listened to the Hagen Quartet's recording of it about two weeks earlier. The Vranitzky's performance abounded in subtlety, precision, clarity, and concern for instrumental balance. It was an appropriately serious performance of a serious work. My only reservation was that the reading seemed a bit cautious, but that was understandable – the group has been playing together for only two months. (At this point, I'm listening to the Tatrai Quartet recording of the work, and it's interpretively similar to the Vranitzky's – not bad company to be in.)
The second work was Pavel Vranický's (as the Czechs like to spell it) quartet in B flat Major, Op. 15, No. 3. (1791). This is not a well known piece – Ron Drummond says that it is unrecorded. I had heard it played about 5 months ago at an amplified outdoor lunchtime concert in downtown Seattle, and was frankly not very impressed with the work. (It was performaned by an underrehearsed quasi-predecessor of the Vranitzky – Thane Lewis was a member of that first ensemble, but none of the other members have carried over.) Two musically knowledgeable friends and acquaintances were also unenthusiastic about the piece.
This time, however, it seemed a totally different, and much better, work. It was playful, earthy, inventive, unconventionally structured, and totally engaging. It also had its share of surprises, and I hope to be able to hear it more than once. (A slip of the pen here – I have heard it more than once, but the second playing was effectively like hearing it for the first time.) The performance was full-blooded yet disciplined – no quibbles about interpretive cautiousness this time.
The concluding work was Anton (according to the program; Antonín according to my paltry reference books) Reicha's C Minor quartet, Op. 49, N0. 1 (1804). According to Drummond, this is not only an unrecorded piece, but apparently hasn't even been played since Reicha's time. Such neglect is definitely unwarranted; on first impression, this is a substantial work that deserves to be heard and pondered many times.
Written after Beethoven's Op. 18, and before his Op. 59, it changes character more than once, sometimes sounding like the early 19th-century Viennese classical-tradition work that it is, and sometimes sounding uncannily modern, and mysterious. (This piece was published a year after the birth of another highly original composer who was similarly able to occasionally transcend his time: Berlioz.) Without being as overtly profound as the late Beethoven string quartets, it demonstates a late-period-Ludwig-like fearlessness in its sudden shifts of compositional gears.
This is a complex piece, and I'm sure I didn't get anywhere near all of it in that one hearing. The imaginativeness of Reicha's wind quintets is prefigured here too, and there are all sorts of subtleties in the writing that lead me to want to hear it at least a few more times.
Was it a good performance? Almost certainly so – although there's nothing to compare it to, this reading conveyed so much content that it had to have been a good one. My hunch is that the Vranitzky's reading will get even better in time. I also hope that there will be occasions to hear other groups play this piece, for it strikes me as an elusive work that can support many divergent readings.
How good is it? – as good as the Viennese big guns of classical-period and early romantic chamber music (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert)? That's hard to say with confidence at the moment, but it doesn't seem to fall embarrasingly short of that level. I feel fairly safe in saying that this work seems to attain, approximately, the qualitative level of Schumann's quartets. In a somewhat nonspecific way, it also reminds me of parts of the Bartók quartets.
Most of us here probably remember Ron Drummond's long rhapsodies about the Vranický and Reicha works. He's obviously an interested party, having been instrumental (unintended pun here) in getting the parts and convincing people to rehearse and play the works, but, as someone with no real involvment in those processes, I'll say that Ron's enthusiasm is well justified. His efforts have already yielded some significant fruit – threescore or so people have just heard one very good and one possibly great chamber work for the first time, and a very good young ensemble has been formed to play them.
Here's hoping that the Vranitzky stays together and performs frequently in public, that Ron Drummond can continue finding scores and begin finding some money for this worthy enterprise, and that some imaginative record company can be induced to record and distribute the string quartets of Pavel Vranický, Antonín Reicha, and whatever other unjustly overlooked composers Ron manages to discover in the future.
Copyright © 1998 by John Pastier