The Parker String Quartet at the Corcoran Gallery 

One of the best and least obtrusive Mozart tributes of 2006 is the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s cycle of Mozart quintets, each with a different, up-and-coming young quartet, all with Tapping-ex-Takács (one word, no introduction necessary) as the extra viola. Ingenious mixture of youthful enthusiasm and veteran brilliance unleashed unto the best chamber works Mozart ever wrote is just about a guarantee for greatness in music-making.

Roger TappingAnd so it was, last Friday evening with the Parker String Quartet strutting their stuff, playing the C major quintet, no. 3. Neither flawless nor extraordinarily deep, perhaps (the first movement was necessary for the five to find each other), but in toto a wonderful success for the sum of its good parts and a performance far, far from routine. Most distinctive about it perhaps was violist Jessica Bodner’s tone in the Andante (and only there). Outstanding in the literal sense, spine-tingling (although I am still not sure if in a good or bad sense), it was a quality of tone seemingly unique, yet familiar. Words fail, describing it: cutting, cold, nasal all miss more than they fit… if the name weren’t already taken, I’d christen it “Blue Steel.” Even if causing an oddly ambivalent reaction, it probably should or could be considered an asset just for having elicited such a visceral one. Just as it appeared out of nowhere, so it disappeared again at the onset of the Menuetto which, with the finale (Allegro) brought out the best playing in the Mozart, concluding an evening that had started with Joan Tower’s Nightfields.

Composed in 1984 for the Muir Quartet, Nightfields is supposed to evoke – not surprisingly – “nocturnal landscapes.” But if that is the case, it’s via a very different mood than we might expect. The sound isn’t hushed, not subdued… and while the cello’s domination in the opening may create a low sound, it evokes darkness only in a rich, chocolatey way. The means of creating nightscapes found in Mahler’s 7th symphony or Ligeti’s first string quartet or Field’s or Chopin’s nocturnes, all more intuitively nocturnal in character, were wholly absent in this bold, forceful, and (I admit: surprisingly) excellent string quartet. Even in lyrical passages it was flooded with clarity – not the least thanks to the flawless and charged playing of Daniel Chong (first violin), Karen Kim (second violin), Kee-Hyun Kim (cello), and the aforementioned Ms. Bodner (viola). Absolute precision and ferocity were present either because of youth or due to maturity ‘beyond their years’ (or a happy combination thereof) – in any case it worked well for Nightfields, which apart from the excited last few staves, sounds like Shostakovich long on lyricism and a little short on rhythmic drive.

NEC's Parker String Quartet
If none of Schumann’s three quartets are very frequent guests on chamber concert programs, it may be because they are ‘ungrateful’ works; offering a less congenial ratio of practice and effort to an actually exciting performance than do other works (like Bartók or Shostakovich ones, which are ‘grateful’ quartets, profiting almost always from the mere fact of being played live). All three of these rare jewels are difficult to bring off really well, not unlike Brahms’s works in that genre. Nor does technical mastery alone make for a rewarding experience (although that’s probably the case with most music). It then goes to the credit of the Parker String Quartet that they programmed Schumann’s A minor quartet, op. 41, no. 3. More impressive, still, that their performance was very good, indeed. The last of its movements was exemplary. A few flat shades from the first violin in the Andante espressivo notwithstanding, the rest was excellent, too, if just shy of electrifying. I haven’t heard these works live very often, but if I’ve heard better, then only from the Zehetmair Quartet.

I’d been told that the Parker String Quartet would be a very exciting quartet to watch – and it wasn’t hype. Young to boot (maybe around 22, 23 years old; the violists hands suggesting perhaps even a year or two less), they were what the Calder Quartet should wish to be; although the latter seem downright middle-aged compared to this crop and the nearly as young Jupiter and Minetti Quartets. All of them have their strengths and weaknesses (the Minetti the least of the latter, the Jupiter – on a good day – the most of the former, the Parker somewhere between). The Parker String Quartet’s second violin is a particularly good, a sharp (not in the out-of-tune sense), agile instrument of great precision and with energy to waste, followed by the cello with its huge round sound and pleasant timber. It would be unfair and going too far to speak of a ‘weakness’, per se, but at least on Friday night, the first violin was not quite at the same level. Little matter in another outstanding night.

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