Ensemble Music Society
Indiana History Center
Wednesday, May 16

Ensemble Music Society President John Failey is certain that the Vermeer String Quartet — now called simply Vermeer — has performed under Ensemble auspices in the distant past. The quartet has been actively touring, performing and recording for over 35 years. And though I’ve been attending Ensemble concerts for a “few” of those years, I don’t recall this group. In any case, violinists Shmuel Askenasi and Mathias Tacke, violist Richard Young and cellist Marc Johnson are calling it quits this summer. As a parting gift, they left us a sterling program of great quartet music.

Like the Rossetti Quartet a couple months ago, Vermeer began with a late Mozart quartet, his No. 22 in B-flat, K. 589. This is the second of his final three, all dedicated to the King of Prussia, himself a talented cellist. And, as is typical of late Mozart, there is considerable gravity beneath the light, engaging surface, including some harmonic shifts startling for his time. This music oozed out of our performers with an understated, slightly inflected delivery. All the Mozartean goodies appeared through mild accents and minor tempo variations. The playing was smooth, the ensemble blend near-perfect. Yet, I’ve heard more moving performances of K. 589.

The Leos Janáçek Quartet No. 1 (1923) which followed seemed to spark Vermeer a bit more. It’s entitled “The Kreutzer Sonata” after Tolstoy’s novella, which in turn derives its title from Beethoven’s most famous violin sonata. Those Bohemian folk elements heard throughout the four movements appear, however, to have nothing to do with either Tolstoy or Beethoven. But then a title often exists as a composer’s inspirational source — not as a listener guide. With its first movement as an Adagio and the succeeding three each marked Con moto (in part), the quartet was given a nicely inflected reading throughout. The Vermeer seemed more in its element. Or perhaps — as so often happens — its players had fully warmed up.

Thus, Vermeer should have been fully warmed for the “late” Beethoven that followed the break. Of the five quartets the deaf composer wrote during his final two years, only No. 15 in A Minor, Op. 132 seems to have any recent Ensemble performance history. It’s appeared two or three times over the last decade, while the other four await being given a local hearing. But they are all transcendent works, the richest creations to come from Beethoven’s pen (and therefore anyone’s), notwithstanding his personal life concurrently wracked with pain and disease. Op. 132 is in five movements, of which the third, the “Heiliger Dankgesang” (“Song of Thanksgiving”), reaches the sublime in its final pages.

But there’s plenty to chew on in the first movement’s glowing passion, the second’s equivocal mood —  interrupted by a droning interval on A, the fourth’s “earthly” march after the heaven-exalting third — quickly leading into a recitative, which in turn introduces a compact, Schubertian Finale. All the elements were there, and Vermeer found them all.


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