In case you don’t know, the Mirós are currently celebrating their tenth anniversary in residence at the University of Texas in Austin. They were founded in 1995 at Oberlin College, in Ohio.
Unlike some string quartets, I didn’t hear the ensemble’s driving force emanating from the first violin chair: violinist Daniel Ching seemed disinclined to dominate. Similarly, the two middle players – second violinist William Fedkenhauer and violist John Largess – were about balance and blend, most of the time. But when cellist Joshua Gindele put bow to string, all was revealed: his tempi and phrasing were the guiding force behind the Mirós’ interpretations. This is a quartet ruled from below (and there’s nothing wrong with that).
Back to Schubert. The Mirós opened with a reading of the Quartettensatz in C Minor (a stub of an uncompleted quartet). It was a smooth and tidy performance, establishing the musicians’ strengths in precision and transparency. However, perhaps more could have been done to plumb the depths of this remarkable movement.
A complete work, the Quartet in E (D. 353), followed. I found myself wondering why the quartet chose it: it’s an early effort from Schubert, and not the kind of music that made him famous, lacking the romantic glory of his later works. And, again, the Mirós seemed to content to neatly “package” the piece, tying it up in a pretty bow and delivering it to the audience with due propriety. The highlight was the fourth movement, which had a spark of fire that generated some warmth.
By this point in the evening, the program was in need of a boost. Happily, this came in the form of one of Schubert’s greatest works, his Quartet in D Minor (D. 810), better known as “Death and the Maiden.”
Before playing the piece, Fedkenhauer addressed the audience. He pointed out that if the eponymous poem (by Matthias Claudius) that inspired Schubert’s quartet is carefully read, it’s apparent that the agitated musical passages don’t represent Death, but rather the dying maiden – and the lyrical passages don’t represent the maiden, but instead portray the seductive powers of Death.
Be that as it may, this idea was clearly inspiring to the Mirós. And they rose to the challenge of the masterpiece on their music stands, sinking their teeth into each note and phrase to deliver a powerful performance. The first movement was crisp and dramatic. The second was veiled and sombre, with sinister touches. And the final two movements were brilliant blazes of energy.
I find this kind of unevenness presentation often rears its head in concerts devoted entirely to one composer. It’s an approach to programming that’s all the rage these days – and I suppose it’s intended to be deeply reverential, or impressively scholarly, or some such admirable thing. But on this occasion, the Miró Quartet might have done better to place “Death and the Maiden” among equally strong performances of works by other composers.
© Colin Eatock 2013