Commentary Magazine


String Quartets Abounding

The string quartet repertory is so demanding to play that fans of the genre cling to rare historical favorites on CD who manage to get it just right. Mutual dependence and independence, statements from both the individual and group that convey a balanced message are extremely difficult to achieve. Sometimes a strenuous, heavy-handed group wins critical praise, perhaps because they always sound the same, no matter what music they play. Differentiating the styles and personalities of various composers so that Ravel does not sound like Debussy, let alone Brahms, is a rare skill. Whence the deserved cult-like status of historical ensembles like the Busch Quartet; Budapest String Quartet; Flonzaley Quartet; and Calvet Quartet, who were able to enter different musical worlds adeptly.

There are a few veteran ensembles today, like the Panocha Quartet and Wihan Quartet who match this precedent with supple, fleet, yet expressive artistry, but they are scarce. Which makes it all the more surprising to see a flurry of new quartets with young performers who play exceptionally well, as if decades of coaching by older ensemble players at music conservatories worldwide finally bore fruit.

The Daedalus string quartet, formed in 2000, is named after the mythical Greek inventor who fashioned wings that allowed him to fly. Their debut CD on Bridge Records of works by Sibelius, Stravinsky, and Ravel is joyously expressive. In Greek, “Daidalos” means “cunning worker” and given the skilled efforts required for this level of mastery, one might assume other young quartets would crash and burn just as Daedalus’s son Icarus did, for flying too close to the sun. Instead they excel, like Britain’s Belcea Quartet, which, despite its English pedigree, is anchored by two fiery East European virtuosos, Romanian-born first violin Corina Belcea and Polish violist Krzysztof Chorzelski. Whether playing works by Schubert or Britten on EMI Classics, the Belceas are passionately idiomatic performers.

Some other groups are already building substantial discographies, like appealing CD’s of Dvořák, Mendelssohn, and Hindemith by the Pacifica String Quartet, for the excellent small Chicago-based label Cedille. Likewise, the Borromeo Quartet has already recorded delightful interpretations of Ravel and Beethoven for the Image label. The Brentano string quartet has produced a mellifluous CD of Haydn, which is fully worthy of its eminent predecessors.

Others remain under-recorded, like the Avalon String Quartet, whose CD of Janáček and Ravel leaves the listener wanting more. Some stellar, worthy young quartets have not yet jump-started their recording careers, although their artistry can be savored from sound clips on their websites, like the superb Jupiter String Quartet and fluent Parker String Quartet, both American-trained ensembles. The aforementioned musicians offer so much warm-hearted playing that even confirmed nostalgics, ever-ready to fight over whether the Busch or Budapest Quartets played better Beethoven, may be moved to stop squabbling long enough to pay attention to some admirable new artists.