From four talents, one rich sound

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / September 14, 2009

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On Friday, the Muir String Quartet played the first of six concerts covering the entirety of Beethoven’s string quartets, a season-spanning cycle. It was an opportunity to be reminded that string quartets - both works and ensembles - often find greater rewards in diversity than precision.

The Muir’s richness derives from four varying musical personalities. First violinist Peter Zazofsky revels in risk at both extroverted and introverted extremes. Second violinist Lucia Lin provides more matter-of-fact, stylishly deployed power, inner phrases shot through with tensile strength. Violist Steven Ansell adds polished, aristocratic eloquence, while cellist Michael Reynolds is a steady, unflappable foundation, the reserved Charlie Watts to Zazofsky’s Jagger-like flamboyance.

And yet their collective musicality could turn on a dime as the program traversed the traditional stylistic divisions of Beethoven’s career. The young, prodigiously talented composer entered with the B-flat major quartet, op. 18 no. 6, all confident, energetic charm. Beethoven even delights in some unexpectedly light-footed, delicate endings; the Adagio, fine-spun gauze, received a particularly ravishing reading. The heroic Beethoven was represented by the F minor quartet, op. 95, delicacy replaced by chiseled heft; even the central slow movement is more the tighter coil of a heavy spring. The group savored the music’s whisper-to-shout contrasts, the sort of explosive, exuberant grimness effective enough to be resurrected for the defiant alienation of ’90s grunge.

The Metcalf Trustee Center Ballroom was a less-than-ideal venue, hotel-regal but acoustically bleak; minor slips of intonation that would have been smoothed over by a more reverberant hall remained stubbornly coarse. (The group’s invitation to some of the standing-room crowd to colonize the carpeting in front of the stage neutralized some of the room’s institutional opulence with a casual, rug-concert vibe.)

Breadth carried the A minor quartet, op. 132, quintessential late Beethoven in its constantly shifting textures, a stream-of-consciousness epic. Smudgy intonation was more in evidence, but the pacing and mood were so dead on that it didn’t really matter; the idiosyncratic structural convoy was both mercurial and compelling, the central “Heiliger Dankgesang’’ hymn breathtaking in its transporting grace.

Even as Beethoven’s compact motives knit the ensemble together, blurring theme and accompaniment, his quick-pan shifts of instrumental focus threaten to spin the conversation off into simultaneous fragments. But the Muir’s performance, their personalities combined but not subsumed, brought out the music’s capacity for dramatizing the tenuous tenacity of human connection; gossamer threads, strained but unbroken.


At: Metcalf Trustee Center Ballroom, Boston University, Friday

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