By Dennis D. Rooney
Founded in 2013, the Telegraph Quartet hails from the West Coast, specifically San Francisco, where they been appointed artists-in-residence at The San Francisco Conservatory of Music. They have often appeared nationally and internationally, and performed last year in the Flagler Museum music series. Their prizes include the Fischoff Competition. In 2016, they won the Naumburg International Competition.
The players, Eric Chin and Joseph Maile, violins; Pei-Ling Lin, viola; and Jeremiah Shaw, cello, have adopted an uncommon placement on stage, with the violins seated on either end, the viola between the first violin and cello. Chin’s violin is by the Spanish maker Juan Guillami from 1745; Lin’s viola is by French maker Paul Hilaire from 1960; Jeremiah Shaw’s cello is by Italian maker Eugenio Degani from 1887; and Maile’s violin, from 1858 is by the French maker Bernardel père from 1858. As it happened, the placement of the players worked very well Wednesday in the dry acoustics of the Duncan Theatre Stage West, sounding well-balanced and euphonious.
Inaugurating that venue’s 31st season of chamber music, the program opened with Beethoven’s Quartet No. 5 (in A, Op. 18, No. 5), from a set of six, published in 1801, that were the composer’s first such works. They show Beethoven influenced by the quartets of Haydn, with whom he briefly studied, and Mozart. In fact, this quartet is modeled closely on Mozart’s quartet, K. 464, in the same key. Coincidentally, K. 464 was the fifth quartet of Mozart’s set of six works completed in 1785 and dedicated to Haydn.
In most of the Op. 18 quartets, Beethoven substitutes a scherzo movement for the traditional minuet; however, in Op. 18, No. 5 (and also No. 3) the minuet is retained, although Beethoven wrote out the minuet statement in full, so that the melody appears in the “repeat” in the viola. A lengthy Andante theme and variations follow. In the fifth of them, Beethoven nods to Mozart’s K. 464, although his “drumming” cello is accomplished differently. The outer movements are Allegros, the first of which opens with a three-note idea also found in Mozart’s opening movement. In the finale, Beethoven echoes Mozart again by inserting a brief hymn-like passage similar to Mozart’s K. 464 finale.
Following the Beethoven was the Italian Serenade of Hugo Wolf (1860-1903), one of the few instrumental works of a composer primarily known for his songs, usually considered the summit of the German Lied tradition. In G major, the Italian Serenade, written in 1887, is not only Wolf’s most famous instrumental piece but also considered the first work of his mature style. Although he orchestrated it in 1892, the quartet original more successfully conveys, to my mind, the work’s sun-drenched high spirits; however, only the best players can successfully negotiate the many tricky unisons, octaves and other challenges to pure intonation. Which the Telegraph managed consummately. Meticulous rehearsal contributed to an immaculate performance.
After intermission was Ravel’s Quartet in F. Like Beethoven, who modeled his Op. 18, No. 5, after Mozart, Ravel had as his model the Quartet in G minor, written in 1893 by Claude Debussy. Ravel’s work was written a decade later, dedicated to his teacher, Gabriel Fauré, and premiered in 1904. Although Debussy was his model, Ravel writes in a more lucid style than the elder composer and was attracted to classical models, which makes grouping him with the Impressionists mostly inaccurate.
The first movement, an Allegro moderato, is marked Très doux. Like his model, the second movement of Ravel’s Quartet uses pizzicato and contrasting rhythms, and functions as a scherzo. It is followed by the delicacy of the third movement, marked Très lent, which utilizes the coloristic qualities of tremolando and harmonics. The finale, Vif et agité, is energetic and brilliant.
A staple of the string quartet repertoire for over a century, Ravel’s Quartet has many effects that require careful attention to tonal blend, balance and stylistic unanimity. The Telegraph provided them throughout. If these talented young players fell short, it will be remedied by the years of playing this work that will enable them to make magical passages magical as well as exceptionally well-played.