Harpsichord recital misplacedIf it filled Kresge Auditorium with free admissions on a Sunday night, and it was not an LSC movie, it must have been an Important Event.
It was. The world-renowned Cleveland Quartet performed a brilliant program of pieces that included the Boston area premiere of Quartet No. 1 by MIT's own John Harbison.
Because of the restrictions it places on musical resources, the string quartet is probably the most challenging medium available to composers. The emotions normally conveyed by orchestral symphonies must be outlined by four instruments with a limited spectrum of tone colors; these instruments must also support a coherent musical structure. Despite these restrictions, the quartet genre has yielded some of the world's finest music, from the impressioninstic, painterly approach of Ravel and Debussy, through the emotional fury of Beethoven's later works, to the crystalline purity of Webern.
As he explains in his program notes, Harbison's approach to his first string quartet parallels that of the serial composers. He presents a series of episodes, derived from the first few notes of the piece, compressed into a relatively short time span. Herein lies both the beauty and the difficulty of Harbison's work: the compression produces an elegant interweaving of motifs, but it does not allow the listener any time to digest the motifs as they fly by. More than one listener must have resisted the urge to raise his hand and ask, "I didn't catch all of that the first time around, could you play it again?" The feeling of information overload was furthered by the minimal movement breaks; the first movement's sinuous viola melody merged into the paired triads which bracketed the second movement's ideas. These in turn melded into the final energetic presto fugitivo.
The clarity with which Harbison's furtive melodies were conveyed is a testament to the virtuosity of the Cleveland Quartet. They have an uncanny talent for augmenting even the most rapidly shifting melody, and play with a clarity and tone rarely heard by these ears. (The Cleveland has a unique tonal advantage in that they play a set of Stradivarius instruments once owned by Paganini.) It was a delight to hear each instrument as an individual voice, as opposed to the all-too-usual homogenized mid-range with cello booming underneath.
Although Harbison's structures may be compressed in the Quartet, his special genius for painting emotional nuances still shone through in broad strokes. The work conveyed a sense of uneasy meditative introspection, culminating in the final movement's rise to action. The piece's complexity requires repeated listening for a complete understanding, but its emotional sense will have audiences returning to it for further study.