As noted in Anne Midgette’s recent article surveying “alt-classical” (and more on that later), the Chiara Quartet plays “chamber music in any chamber,” including bars, clubs, and galleries. On Friday night, however, they found themselves in a common quartet venue (the Mansion at Strathmore), playing more-or-less standard repertoire, quartets by Prokofiev, Beethoven, and Debussy.
Yet they departed from script by putting Beethoven in the second slot, one usually reserved on programs by enterprising quartets for some less-than-universally beloved modern work, and by having violist Jonah Sirota say a few words about the Beethoven before they played it. “You don’t have to advocate for the Beethoven!” I wanted to say. “That’s why people are here!” But that may not be true when the quartet is performing in its “Beethoven in Bars” initiative — there, they’d need to say what the music meant to them, and perform it with enough conviction and intensity to make it stand out among the background clatter of people ordering Yuenglings and trying to find the restroom. And that’s exactly what they did.
In another oddity for standard quartet practice, they began with the program’s sole 20th-century work, Prokofiev’s first string quartet. In this work especially, Prokofiev reminds me of a pitcher with a devastating curveball who refuses to throw it, as he roughly gestures in ornery harmonies and hard-treading folk rhythms and lets his melodic gift peek out only occasionally. The Chiarans enjoyed said folk rhythms (Sirota and cellist Gregory “Eager” Beaver supplemented them with foot-stomping) and played up the main themes enough so that Prokofiev’s underlying structure became apparent. In the Andante that closes the work (another typical Prokofiev gesture), they finally got a few longer melodies to play, and they showed a great deal of sensitivity, but when Prokofiev turned up the volume the quartet didn’t do much to differentiate the various passages and show a progression (which, admittedly, is partly the composer’s fault). Still, they were able to make the unconventional ending feel satisfying.
Debussy’s string quartet demands a different skill set, which the Chiara supplied after intermission. No foot-stomping here! The quartet instead drew attention with felicitous details, producing delicate pizzicatos in the second movement and transparent, luminous textures as Debussy’s wistful melodies lapped and sighed in the third. The outer movements of this quartet annoy me, as this early work in Debussy’s career seems prone to landing on the conventional solution to a problem, but the Chiara seemed to enjoy the conventional moments as much as they did the surprises, and thus made the quartet significantly less annoying than usual.
And what of the Beethoven? Sirota’s remarks emphasized the drama in the fourth of the Op. 18 quartets, the only one in a minor key, and went so far as to name this the best of the six, about which proposition Op. 18 no. 1 in F major would like to have a word. That said, the Chiara certainly played this quartet as if they believed that the C-minor drama here led directly to Fate knocking at the door in Beethoven’s same-key Fifth, emphasizing the first movement’s sharp turns from minor to major and back again with such gusto I thought I was going to get whiplash (and with plenty o’ foot-stomping too). In the second movement, an island of gentle humor in the midst of turmoil, the quartet sounded like they were looking for some giant bear to kill, trampling the scenery in the process. But the succeeding Menuetto and the Allegro finale gave them some more dramatic material to chew on. They didn’t need to project this strongly in a small, silent hall like the Mansion, but they did, and while you might not want to hear Op. 18 no. 4 like this every time, after they bullrushed the Prestissimo coda of the finale and stabbed the major-key final chord, I took a breath and realized that my heart was, quite literally, racing. That’ll play well in any venue.
O.P.P.: Didn’t we hear them do most of this program two days earlier? Yes, and Joe Banno reviewed it.