By Dennis D. Rooney
It took only a few measures of Beethoven’s Quartet No. 6 (in B-flat major, Op. 18, No. 6) to explain the high rank among contemporary American string quartets of the Attacca Quartet, founded in 2003 and actively concertizing for a decade.
In the opening work of their Duncan Stage West program Feb. 21, they excelled in its strongly rhythmic character and plotted its dynamic accents expertly. Interpretatively, they hit all the marks, from the sturdy Allegro con brio opening to the sparkling Allegretto quasi Allegro finale preceded by 44 measures of Adagio introduction, named by the composer La Malinconia.
Music of György Ligeti (1923-2006) came next, his String Quartet No. 1, subtitled Metamorphoses nocturnes. Completed in 1954, it was not heard until 1958 when it was premiered in Vienna, by which time the composer had fled his native Hungary and settled in Cologne. Now 64 years old, the quartet persists in profoundly unsettling many listeners because of its severely dissonant character. In prefatory remarks from the stage, we were told that the single movement form is a theme and variations, “except there is no theme.”
Actually, what functions as the theme is a chromatic series of major seconds (G-A-G sharp-A sharp) that form the melodic character of the many short sections that comprise one-movement work of about 20 minutes’ duration. Rhythmic variation is the true basis of the title. Ligeti acknowledges the lingering influence of Bartók in this music, and it’s easy to recognize the elder composer’s penchant for succeeding fast-slow-fast sections.
The members of the Attacca Quartet — violinist Amy Schoeder and Keiko Tokunaga, violist Nathan Schram, and cellist Andrew Yee — negotiated the twists and turns of the music, filled with ferocious outbursts, extended dissonance, and contrasting atmospheric homophony against rapid violin trills much in the manner of Bartók’s “night” music, and ghostly con sordino glissandi. Although it can be fatiguing to play, their performance seemed as fresh and focused at the end as at the beginning.
Schumann’s Quartet No. 3 (in A, Op. 41, No. 3) was less successful. Despite interest and commitment, the players adopted a style that was far too rectilinear for this music, whose lyrico-poetic content requires sinuosity in the presentation of its ideas. Dynamics were often too sharply accented and louder than desirable in a work with few passages in its four movements marked louder than forte. Phrases that should be recognizably easy in their mien too often sounded stiff.
The foursome played to their strengths in the fugato (L’istesso tempo) in the second movement, and the Allegro molto vivace finale, with its lurching dotted-eighth rhythm. The falling fifth that opens the work and its subsequent later appearances are supposedly the two syllables of the name of Schumann’s beloved Clara; however, the composer would surely have known them as the opening of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 18 (in E-flat, Op. 31, No. 3).