Biava Quartet, Clark Art Institute, Haydn, Kodály, Mendelssohn

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The Biava Quartet
The Biava Quartet

Biava Quartet
Austin Hartman and Hyunsu Ko violin, Mary Persin viola, and Jason Calloway cello

Clark Art Institute
Sunday, April 6, 2008, 3 pm.

Haydn, String Quartet in C Major, Op. 54, no. 2
Kodály, String Quartet No. 2, Op. 10 (1916–18)
Mendelssohn, String Quartet in F minor, Op. 80

It is perhaps not entirely accurate to call the Biava Quartet (named after the distinguished Philadelphia violinist and conductor Luis Biava.) a “young” quartet, since it is already ten years old. During that time they have collected an impressive array of prizes, including the Naumberg Chamber Music Prize and a first at the London International competition. Today they hold the Lisa Arnhold Quartet R

esidency at the Juilliard School, serving as graduate quartet in residence and teaching assistants to the Juilliard Quartet. This Juilliard connection is not without significance, since, as cellist Jason Calloway mentioned while introducing the Kodály, the Juilliard Quartet were their mentors. During the Biava’s Sunday afternoon concert, the relationship was constantly apparent, not only in their tight ensemble and disciplined rhtyhm, but in their sound, which recalls not so much the mellowed timbre of the Juilliard Quartet today, but the brilliance and bite of their earlier years. On the other hand, the Biava Quartet’s approach to ensemble textures is quite different. They are more interested in the changing, varied textures created by contrasts among the four instruments. The violinists and violist play standing, while the cellist sits on a podium, which gives them a little more acoustic space around each instrument, not to mention brilliance. This was particularly striking in the works on the first half of the program, which of course must reflect their musical interests, especially since both works are seldom played.

Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 54 No. 2 in C of 1788 is dominated by the unusually prominent role of the first violin, which plays elaborate recitative-like parts in three of the four movements. Leader Austin Hartman attacked these with an extremely bright, almost steely sound, which contrasted dramatically with the darkness of the viola and cello in certain passages. Through the first movement the other instruments functioned primarily as accompanists. The solliloquizing style of the second movement almost had an archaic ring to it, recalling some of Vivaldi’s moodier passages. After a more conventional minuet, this manner reappeared in the Adagio introduction of the finale, which returned to conclude the piece after a sprightly presto, ceasing, in fact, with a terse cadence. Mr. Hartman’s brilliant concertante playing and the ensemble’s exploration of Haydn’s shifting timbres served the music most eloquently.

The centerpiece of Kodály’s String Quartet No. 2, Op. 10 is also a recitative for the first violin, this time confined to the second movement, an andante. In his introduction Jason Calloway almost bragged that this quartet is so obscure that the Juilliard Quartet had never even heard it. It hardly deserves this neglect. It is a very attractive, rather nostalgic work, with hints of the outdoors and passages of folk music, especially in the last movement. Again the Biava Quartet’s rhythmic alertness and variety of tone color was most effective.

The Mendelssohn’s Quartet in F Minor, Op. 80, his sixth, a work replete with rapid ensemble passages, gave the Quartet a chance to display their virtuosity as an ensemble, which was impressive. Their articulation was always precise and clean throughout many running passages in the work, which they brought off with great energy. It all came to a climax in the fourth movement with its virtuosic concertante passages for the first violin, once again brilliantly played by Mr. Hartman.

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