With clear blue skies circulating around Music Mountain in Falls Village, the Harlem Quartet provided a lively entertainment in an eclectic yet wonderful program. They began with Claude Debussy’s only string quartet, String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10 (1893) which in sonata format employs Baroque church Phrygian modality to polyphonic effect where the final sonority is an E-major triad. The composition begins with the same first four notes of Grieg’s only string quartet and Debussy is reported to have said something like “he was going to teach Grieg how to write a quartet.” Instead of engaging in folk music like Grieg, the ambitious but impoverished Debussy conceived of a rather elitist attitude, remarking that he would compose for only about five people. One critic declared this string quartet a work of “musical pointillism” that was “more hallucination than dream.” Debussy had heard Indonesian gamelan music in Paris and had incorporated it into his quartet to compose global music rather than merely European music while emphasizing tone and color over traditional form. This quartet was so original that a took a decade before it was recognized.
While Ilmar Gavilán’s violin led the first movement, Felix Umansky’s cello supplied the attractive harmonies of the second more anguished movement where rhythm and subtle, swellings of poignant sound deliver an emotional wallop with a seductive, sedative impact, and here Jaime Amador was so effective. In the third movement with its gamelan inflection the Harlem Quartet played with such unity that the audience felt drowned in Debussy’s peculiar Oriental aesthetic. One aspect of the Harlem Quartet is that second violinist Melissa White is as good as any first violinist.
Gabriela Lena Frank’s Milagros (Miracles) for String Quartet (2010) offered more levity in the comic conclusion of its first movement. The second movement provided sobering lament with elegy while the concluding third movement delivered the modest vision of hope for the future in ending with a light drizzle of rain akin to the ending of Beethoven’s late Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111. Deft pizzicato was employed throughout the work, and White’s clean picking enlivened the work.
Another contemporary composer took happiness to a more popular level: William Bolcom’s Three Rags for String Quartet (1989) let strings wittily appropriate the terrain of piano. “Poltergeist” placed fragments of music hither and thither, only to transmogrify or vanish. The witty conclusion was most welcome, and the audience laughed. “Graceful Ghost” and its more manic companion “Incineratorrag” offered delightful amusement to decompress from Debussy.
After intermission César Franck’s lush Piano Quintet in F minor (1879) offered meditative emotion. The unusual string opening movement has no piano and the piano rather humbly enters the ensemble sound as mere support, yet the role of the piano gradually grows more dominant in opening as the first violin leads with lyricism while the piano supplies harmonic support under the dexterous fingers of guest pianist Francine Kay as she swung into the fluid meters of Franck’s forest of melodies. While the first movement was agitated and reflective with fugal movement, the second movement delivers elegiac lament with considerable counterpoint form Umansky’s cello as Kay’s piano offered sophisticated syncopation.
There is an element of narcotic dream akin to Debussy’s string quartet, both compositions being immersed in a late Romantic Impressionism. Saint-Saëns had played piano for the first performance in 1880; Franck offered him the original manuscript at the end of the concert, but Saint-Saëns rejected the work of the Belgian as being too thickly Germanic in its texture. Oh, the vanity of artists!
The last movement was performed with astonishing unity: these five players sounded like a mighty symphony. Yes, there was no vanity here: four musicians blending as if they were a single, subtle melodic entity with many faces!