"Did William Preucil always sound that good?" a friend asked following Monday's Cleveland Quartet concert at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Pretty much, I replied. Sweetness of tone, lyrically supple phrasing, sensitivity to musical and ensemble values - these were nearly always hallmarks of his playing when he was concertmaster of the Utah Symphony nearly a decade ago.But I do not remember the Cleveland Quartet being quite this supple, or this subtle, the last time they performed under the auspices of the Chamber Music Society of Salt Lake City, back in 1986.
But, then, Preucil is not the only member new to the group since then. So is violist James Dunham, whose playing Monday was likewise notable for its beauty and sensitivity. By the same token his solos in Mozart's String Quartet in D minor, K. 421, which opened the evening, were set off not so much by his raising his volume as by his colleagues reducing theirs.
The result was a somewhat understated reading, whose quiet strength served to highlight the music's melancholy. Especially the controlled thrust of the minuet, bracketing Preucil's affecting violin solos in the trio, and the slight hesitations in the finale, here splendidly judged.
That same teamwork was evident in the work that followed, the Op. 3 Quartet of Alban Berg. Like the other pieces on this program, the Berg Quartet was written for a Vienna not really ready to receive it. Indeed, a review following its premiere in 1911 accused the composer of maltreating the genre.
There are no doubt many who feel that way even today. But even at its most atonal this strikes me as a gorgeous work, its full range of dynamic and expressive markings always being employed musically as opposed to simply for effect.
Full is the word, moreover, as Berg's dynamics here run the gamut from pppp to ffff. Monday I'm not sure the Cleveland gave us much of the latter. But they certainly did the former, in a carefully thought-out reading that paid particular attention to the music's more nightmarish aspects. Thus the unconventional bowings of the first movement emerged eerily, as did the pizzicato snaps of the finale. At the same time, except for some incisive playing in the same movement (especially from cellist Paul Katz) it all might have bitten a mite harder.
Ditto Beethoven's Op. 59, No. 1, the first of the "Razumovsky" Quartets, which approximately a century before likewise broke new ground. But I certainly preferred this to the all-Beethoven program this same quartet presented in 1986. For where that was often wiry and ill-focused, this performance boasted wonderful refinement and concentration, of particular advantage in the Adagio.
For the rest the strength was again mostly internal, although they did manage to convey both the moody interior and controlled muscularity of the Allegretto. Reminding us that this is in fact not the same quartet, something that reflects well on all its members.
I wonder what they will be like in another four years?