The music of Franz Schubert is not an unknown quantity (except for the operas), but a good group of musicians can always bring something special to it that we might not have encountered before.
Tuesday night at the Flagler Museum, the Ying Quartet, a veteran string foursome founded in Chicago more than 30 years ago, programmed two of Schubert’s late quartets on the first concert of the chamber music season at Whitehall. Also on the bill of fare was an American work, Kevin Puts’s Dark Vigil of Youth, written 21 years ago for the quartet and now returned to its repertoire.
The Ying Quartet began in 1988 as a group of siblings, and three of them — second violinist Janet Ying, violist Phillip Ying and cellist David Ying — are still in the quartet, while the first violinist seat has been occupied by several people since founding member Timothy Ying departed in 2009; Robin Scott has been its first violinist since 2015.
It may go without saying that this is a group with splendid ensemble, given that three of them have played together all of their lives, but one of the standout aspects of Tuesday night’s concert was the way the quartet’s core sound swayed and swerved with the arc of the music but didn’t fall apart. If there were a couple moments here or there where things suggested shakiness or the intonation was just a hair shy of exact, there was never any question that this was a group that could handle this very difficult music with polish and aplomb.
The Puts work, a 20-minute elegy and sound picture written in the wake of the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado back in 1999, is a deeply felt work that gets across a message of somberness and acceptance even without knowledge of the event it’s commenting on (and indeed, Puts intended to write about violence among children in general). To his credit, Puts never goes too far afield trying to depict the horrors of the school massacre, as he well could have done, by stretching the players to the limit with sounds emulating a savage scream.
Instead, the music starts with a tense, but distinct theme reminiscent of the Ravel Quartet in F, through a soundscape that grows increasingly agitated but nevertheless outlines another important motif: a downward four-note scale followed by a two-note upward slide. Puts builds the piece around this motif, using it to create a series of obsessive, repetitive gestures that ultimately give way to a prayer: slow-moving music of tenderness and peace.
The Ying Quartet played this work with commitment and beauty, making a strong case for a work they clearly admire. Cellist David Ying said in remarks to the mostly full house that this program of two Schuberts plus Puts “works,” and that may be due not only to the deep seriousness of all three pieces, but that also that Puts’s chief motif recalls the opening of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet (No. 14 in D minor, D. 810).
The Yings opened the concert with the one-movement Quartet No. 12 (in C minor, D. 703), also known as the Quartettsatz, being the only completed movement of a projected full quartet. This is a marvelous, fiery piece whose opening measures presage the Unfinished Symphony but here immediately launch into a sweeping, tempestuous movement distinguished by strong themes, powerful rhythms and a mood of Romantic turmoil. The quartet played this fine work with great gusto, reveling in the extra weight it got from the room’s huge reverb, making four sound like at least eight. The first settling down into the secondary theme could have used some more triplet precision, and the descending, semi-modal melodic sequence in the first violin needed a bit more shape to make it really stand out.
The concert closed with the epic final quartet of Schubert (No. 15 in G, D. 887), a long and demanding work that is wholly symphonic in ambition despite being confined to four musicians. Its sheer abundance of good ideas remains astonishing even today, and the Ying Quartet played it excellently, with the kind of no-holds-barred passion and fire that too often gets left out of Schubert performances.
The only quibble I had with the performance was in the finale, which needs the main theme to sound with high spirits and exuberance; here, it was mellow and relaxed, doubtless in part because the room’s acoustics make the strings sound so plush. But it would have added another facet to the art of Schubert on such remarkable display Tuesday night.