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Music review: Johannes Quartet delights at Music in Deerfield concert



Last modified: Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Johannes Quartet, new to the Music in Deerfield concerts, performed at Smith College’s Sage Hall Sunday before a large and enthusiastic audience.

The concert began with a challenge to the audience, that is, a performance of “Homunculus,” written for the quartet in 2007 by Finnish composer Esa-Pekka Salonen. This short work’s title means “The Little Man,” which, according to the composer, refers to the “spermist” theory that “a little man” exists in each sperm.

The piece was full of as many musical devices as could be crammed into 12 minutes. The result was interesting, at times vigorous and dissonant, occasionally lyrical, and, above all, full of rhythmical variations. The music was significant, and the composer’s explanation was unnecessary.

Much more satisfying was the next work, Felix Mendelssohn’s sixth string quartet, composed shortly before the composer’s death at the age of 38 in 1847. Some in the audience may have remembered that the group Brooklyn Rider had played Mendelssohn’s first string quartet at a Music in Deerfield concert a year ago. The contrast with the optimism of a 20-year-old composer’s work and his final composition, as he faced the end of a life of over-work and profligate expenditure of his energy in the service of bringing music to new audiences in Germany and England, is sobering.

As with all of Mendelssohn’s chamber music, the piece demands vigorous bowing and energetic playing. Yet in this last quartet, the third movement’s adagio is reflective and of profound lyrical beauty. It was played by the Johannes Quartet with the solemnity, respect, and beauty that it deserved.

The final work on the program was the second string sextet by Johannes Brahms, composed in 1864. The quartet was joined by two members of the Guaneri Quartet, the cellist Peter Wiley and the violist John Dalley.

A sextet with two cellos and two violas risks having the lower strings outmatch the two violins, but the players maintained their balance, helped by the mellow tone of their instruments, especially that of the first cello, Peter Stumpf, and of the first violin, Soovin Kim, who played a Stradivarius made in 1709.

Brahms gave the second cello a lot of pizzicato work, and Wiley’s playing was a perfect lesson in the use of pizzicato to give a firm foundation for the music. Brahms made unusual demands on the middle instruments in this work, and the playing of the first viola, Choon-Jin Chang, and of the first cello was equal to the composer’s demands.

Also, Stumpf had some of the most exquisite music that Brahms ever composed for the cello and he played it with profound musicianship.


 


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