Live Review: Confront Bartók’s War-torn Burlesque Quartet – Cavani by Candlelight

Cavani String Quartet is a rare all-female ensemble. Going strong for 25 years, they don’t overwork the red evening gowns or blow-dried curls. Instead, they dart bows with accuracy and elegance, indulging in much sul ponticello.

With Cavani, the Candlelight Concert series of Columbia, MD strutted out with some daring — before garnishing with usual string quartet fare: a Mendelssohn takeaway treat.

Violinist Annie Fullard suggested we’d hear Schoenberg and Wagner in Karol Szymanowski’s Quartet #2. I heard a little of Bartok and, surprisingly, a lot of Janáček – but without the lyrical, almost-vocal passages found in Janáček’s two string quartets. It opened with Kirsten Doctor’s viola playing high and clear over the others’ backing tremolo. This 1927 composition explodes with lots of pops and percussive action for strings.

Next up: Béla Bartók’s String Quartet #6. You may recall my review of his Quartet #4;well, welcome to a whole new Béla (as to be expected from a composer grieving over his mother’s recent death). This quartet’s verse-chorus structure hinges on 4 Mestos – meaning “sadly.” It was his last composed in Hungary. In 1939, Europe, embroiled in yet another World War, ran red with tears and was torn by fascism… soon, Béla would flee to America.

Cavani did justice to the unstoppable torment that Bartók saw before him and his country, his world. The second movement – Marcia (a march) offers deep digs of the cello, which Kirsten Doctor punctuates with a fantastic banjo-like thwack on the viola. The third movement – Burletta (“little joke”) is pure Ludwig Kirchner for the ears. Think of the viola’s lines as shocks of white on the cello’s mustard backgrounds, slashes of cobalt, acidic greens and violin solos like red fingernail claws. Here we confront the older cousin to Dmitri Shostakovich’s “KGB knocking at the door” theme from his 1960 “war” quartet. The final movement’s cello pluck ricochets like a pistol shot.

I’d just heard Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in A Major, Opus 13. performed by the Orion String Quartet at Brown University two months ago. They used it to whet our appetite for Beethoven’s famous Opus 131 — you’ll see why in a second. Orion strove for technical perfection, but Cavani captured the youthful flame of Mendelssohn, who composed this opus just months after Beethoven’s death.

Not so florid as one fears after such a modern first half, the ladies of Cavani gave this sugarplum an extra level of depth often skipped over by most who proffer Ol’ Felix to our ears. In 1827, the composer, a mere 18-years-old and fired up on Beethoven’s late quartets, pulled his second quartet together. And, 156 years later, this same quartet brought the Cavani String Quartet together for their first performance. Thus cherished by them, these ladies wrung the piece for all its minor movements and stately lamentations. They flashed the opening and closing bursts of its major 1st and 4th movements.

Next up from the Candlelight Concert series: Jan 24 — The Philharmonia Quartett Berlin strikes up the rarely played “Death in the Maiden” Quartet by Schubert… You might know it from the Roman Polanski film of the same name.

Get tickets here.

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