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Endellion String Quartet excels in Haydn and Weir

The Endellion String Quartet

Program: Haydn, Quartet in E-flat, Op. 71, No. 3; Judith Weir, String Quartet; and Brahms, Quartet in a minor.

Kresge Auditorium.

April 78 & 13, 8 p.m.

By Thomas Chen
Staff Reporter

Free BSO? Free Steve Reich? Does the MIT music program ever cease to amaze? For two weeks near the beginning of April, as some music students already know, the Endellion String Quartet was hosted by the MIT music program through the MIT Artist in Residence Program funded by the Office of the Arts and a number of other munificent organizations.

They concluded their three-concert public appearance in Kresge Auditorium last Thursday, April 13, at 8 p.m. Although they are world-renowned for their Haydn and Mozart recordings, the Endellions displayed some impressive versatility in all three of their programs. The basic outline for each program was (1) Haydn quartet, (2) 20th century British quartet, and (3) 19th century German quartet. For their last concert on April 13, they played Haydn's Quartet in E-flat, Op. 71, No. 3 (1796), Judith Weir's String Quartet (1990), and Brahms' Quartet in a minor, Op. 51, No. 2 (1873).

The members of the Endellion String Quartet are Andrew Watkinson (first violin), Ralph de Souza (second violin), Garfield Jackson (viola), and David Waterman (cello).

Anyone who knows string quartets and follows the major quartet recordings of the last 10 years is surely familiar with the Endellion String Quartet. As the Endellions performed the entire opus 71 set of Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) during their stay at MIT, one may logically conclude that they must be gearing up to record this music as a follow up to their excellent compact disc of the opus 74 set.

Their Haydn is characterized by some wonderful vigor and imagination. The quartet sound is truly well-integrated and certainly well-suited to Haydn's textures. These quartets were written for public performance when Haydn was to travel to London. The Endellions successfully stylized most of Haydn's humor and wit in the E-flat quartet that is common to many of his greatest works. In fact, their honest, rhythmically sprung approach could arguably change respected pianist Stephen Kovacevich's opinion that Haydn's music is for the most part "facetious." Whether someone likes or dislikes Haydn's music, playing of such refinement and energy is hard to fault.

To show off some of their versatility, the Endellions played Judith Weir's String Quartet (1990). Perhaps the most obvious feature of the work is that, as Andrew Watkinson put it, only lasts about "13 minutes." Secondly, it is surprisingly tonal. (Twentieth century music, for one reason or another, is often equated with atonality.) For much of the sparse textures, the Endellions effectively brought out the instrumental voicing and many of the nationalistic musical images Weir (b. 1954) had in mind when writing the piece (e.g., Spain and Scotland). Most memorable was a kind of 1960s-ish, "beatnik" rhythm which the swank cello played to full effect in the second movement. Special mention also goes to the excellent violist who was very characterful in his solo passages.

Most of the difficulty came during the Endellions' rendition of the Brahms piece. Though their ability to play the piece was not in question, one could not help but feel a mild discomfort during the performance. The quartet members were certainly playing in tune. However, the integration of the individual parts did not seem to approach the refinement that was achieved in the Haydn. They played with their usual commitment, rendering some passages with ravishing beauty, but now and again, especially in the first movement, tonal blending appeared misaligned.

This same difficulty was also perceptible on a previous night, when they performed the Schumann Quartet No. 3. Given that the Endellions are Haydn/Mozart specialists, their tone matching in late Romantic works might have longer time constants than usual. Speaking of long time constants, it took Brahms (1833-1897) around 20 years to become fully satisfied with his string quartets; the Endellions are sure to master the tonal shadings of Brahms' beautiful quartet before then.

Despite the very slight awkwardness in the Brahms, the modestly-sized audience warmly rewarded the Endellion String Quartet with generous applause. The Endellions happily reciprocated with an exciting encore from Haydn's Op. 74, No. 3, "The Rider," reaffirming for the evening their prowess as Haydn experts.

Anyone who was at the concert would probably have noticed that very few students attended the event. The audience was similarly underattended by students at the previous April 8 concert too. Hopefully, student readers will find time to take advantage of the unheard-of opportunities their music program has afforded them gratis. One is hard-pressed to imagine how many more famous artists will come to interact with MIT students. To offer a personal suggestion, perhaps a Professor Murray Perahia is in the future? (How's that for wishful thinking?)