Last night’s recital in the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church was given by the winners of the 2016 International Naumburg Competition, the Telegraph Quartet, whose members are violinists Eric Chin and Joseph Maile, violist Pei-Ling Lin, and cellist Jeremiah Shaw. The title of the program was originally announced as Chiaroscuro–The Light and the Dark, but this was omitted from last night’s program book, probably because one of the works, Brett Dean’s “Eclipse,” had to be cancelled. It was replaced by the only piece that Alban Berg called a string quartet (his Opus 3). (The title of his only other string quartet composition was “Lyric Suite.”)
In his remarks to the audience, Maile still tried to develop the theme of contrasts between light and dark; but the case was no longer as strong. The original plan was that the “eclipse” would “connect” the “sunlight” of Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken III/39 (“The Bird”) quartet in C major to the darkness of Franz Schubert’s D. 810 quartet in D minor, known as “Death and the Maiden” for its variations on the D. 521 song of the same name. However, Berg’s quartet had its own rhetoric of darkness; and Maile tried to present D. 810 as a synthesis of dark (from the title) and light.
This argument did not hold up very well. While D. 810 is not one of Schubert’s “final year” compositions, Schubert composed it at a time of serious illness and the feeling that death was near. The presence of death is there in the D minor key, even before the vocabulary of themes has been established. In addition, while the variations of the second movement cover a wide variety of emotional dispositions, the faster tempi of the remaining movements were all written with an intense rhetoric of desperation. If the maiden in Schubert’s song resists death with an almost frantic fear, the quartet rhetoric is one of defiant opposition.
That, at any rate, was the interpretation that practically assaulted the attentive listener last night. This is not to suggest that the result was tantamount to the overacting of a ham dramatist. The Telegraph players had a solid technical command of the full extent of Schubert’s score, but that meant that they could take a thoroughly fearless approach to their expression of that score. The darkness could not have been more overwhelming, to the point at which it was clear that an encore would be necessary to “clear the air.”
Relief was provided by a selection from Antonín Dvořák’s Cypresses cycle, his 1887 string quartet arrangements of twelve of the eighteen love songs he had composed (under the same name) in 1865. (The string quartet collection was originally entitled The Echo of Songs.) Telegraph chose to play the eleventh piece from the quartet version, the setting of the song entitled “Nature Lies Peaceful in Slumber and Dreaming,” a sort of nocturne to suggest that the night is not strictly about menacing darkness.
Berg’s quartet lies somewhere between these two extreme perspectives of the dark. Composed in 1910, it was basically a “graduation” piece, written at the conclusion of his private studies with Arnold Schoenberg. Some have suggested that Berg was influenced by Schoenberg’s Opus 10 quartet in F-sharp minor, composed between 1907 and 1908; but there may also be signs of the much earlier (1899) Opus 4 “Verklärte Nacht” (transfigured night), which Schoenberg had composed for string sextet. Both of these Schoenberg pieces share a dark approach to rhetoric reinforced by the uncertainties of harmonic ambiguity, and in his Opus 3 Berg takes this rhetorical stance and orients it in a new direction. He thus honored his teacher by creating a piece that is very much in his own voice.
Sadly, this is music that is still seldom performed at chamber music recitals. Through their performance, Telegraph established themselves as thoroughly capable advocates for this composition that clearly deserves more attention. We should all hope that it will maintain a significant position in the group’s working repertoire.
The Haydn quartet, on the other hand, the third in his Opus 33 publication, amounted to unabashed sunshine from beginning to end. The bird of its nickname flits all over the place through an abundance of grace note embellishments. However, those gestures of imitated chirping are far from the only pranks Haydn pulls in this quartet. The idea of having the Trio section of the Scherzo movement played as a duo (by the two violins) is, at the very least, an “in joke,” particularly among those who remembered the trio movements from earlier periods that really did have three separate parts. Telegraph, on the other hand, was less concerned with Haydn’s pranks and more focused on the overall sunny disposition of the music. This was, after all, the only real “light” on the evening, since even the encore turned out to be nocturnal!