Debussy’s notes fluttered, scattered, gathered, rose, and formed whirlwinds like so many brilliant spring leaves in capricious breezes Sunday evening, as the Fine Arts Quartet took up the French composer’s dazzling String Quartet No. 1.
Violinists Ralph Evans and Efim Boico and cellist Robert Cohen welcomed guest Juan-Miguel Hernandez into their ranks for the Summer Evenings of Music series. Hernandez, a versatile artist with an interesting resume, will play all four programs this summer, as he fills in for Nicolò Eugelmi. Eugelmi, according to Scott Emmons, dean of UWM’s Peck School of the Arts, is taking the summer off to deal with a neck and back issue that causes numbness in the hands.
Hernandez is a sub, but Sunday’s blend, intonation and musical temperament were such that you would have thought Hernandez had played with the others for years.
The lasting impression from Debussy’s quartet is of complex chords closely voiced, soaring, diving, looping loops, and touching down gently as four instruments acted as one. None of this is easy, but these musicians made it sound effortless as windblown leaves.
The players maintained high energy from the very start of this program, in the propulsive opening of Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade. Buoyant tunes in 6/8 or 3/8 bobbed along gaily and naturally as street dancers at a festival in a happy Italian town. The progress halted just long enough for Cohen to play an ardent song, which the cellist endowed with the outsized passion required to rise to a young lady’s bedroom window. But the dance would not be held back and soon swept the cello from beneath her balcony and back into the whirl. What a charming piece of music.
Guest Denis Brott joined the ensemble to play the second cello part in Schubert’s grand String Quartet in C, D. 956. Brott and Cohen had the pleasure of ushering in one of Schubert’s most beautiful melodies, the second theme of the first movement. This is more singing for strings, and their cellos lavished the warmest timbres and sweetest intonation upon it. The passage is not technically hard, but bringing it into full bloom, to make it fall as a blessing upon the ear as Brott and Cohen did — that is quite something.
Such awareness of beauty held throughout this complex and sophisticated piece, along with an awareness of how the layers of the music mesh. The Adagio, for example, opens with a sustained, slow-moving melody carried primarily by Boico’s second violin and Hernandez’s viola. But Evans had the wan, halting countermelody that pipes up over the ostensible principal theme. The little inflections that Boico and Hernandez brought to their line foreshadowed or responded to Evan’s quiet but urgent intermittent gestures. The passage played out as a poignant dialogue of suppressed pleas met by endlessly patient comforting words.
Such awareness of the musical moment engages the listener. Striking moments occurred in the Scherzo — where an especially slow and dark trio felt like an existential pause in the middle of a bounding fox hunt — and in the finale, at Schubert’s oddly misplaced development. All five players kicked it up a notch for the development, which made for visceral excitement even as it pointed out a structural curiosity. They could not have done a better job of saying that the development falls between the first and second themes short of jumping up and saying, “Hey, the development falls between the first and second themes.”
No need for that. Excellent playing made the music abundantly clear in every way.