In its closing program for this season, the Ancora Quartet has devised a remarkably diversified and satisfying program -- combining a compact rarity with an expansive crowd-pleaser, each demanding in its own way.
Sergei Prokofiev's two string quartets are not given much attention in the working chamber repertoire, but they should not be neglected. I have long liked the Quartet No. 1 in B minor, Op. 50, but I am grateful to this Ancora performance for the chance to reappraise it intensively.
Prokofiev is too often shrugged off by much of the public as a noisy modernist (and a Soviet one, at that). But I have come to appreciate that, from his early maturity onward, he was far more of a lyricist than he is usually credited for being. Not for simplistic big-hit tunes, to be sure, but for sensitive, introspective, flowing melody. Think of that second movement of the Second Violin Concerto, or much of his ballet score, Romeo and Juliet.
His First Quartet is unconventional in form: only three movements, and in a succession of fast-fast-slow. It is, in fact, not three disparate sections, but a totality of continuous progression. The first movement is restless and agitated. In the second, the agitation begins to yield to lyric expression. The third movement is, quite simply, one long song.
The four Ancora players display a full commitment to the work, and make a strong case for its importance, approachability and enduring worth.
The Ancora group has lately been reaching out to additional players, to offer quintets of different kinds. But this time they have pulled off a bonanza. They join forces with the Rhapsodie String Quartet (made up of players from the Madison Symphony Orchestra) to present Mendelssohn's famous Octet in E-flat, Op. 20, for strings. The precocious masterpiece of a 16-year-old genius, this work is just a miracle: of inventiveness, craftsmanship and irrepressible spirit.
I find string chamber works of this type (sextets, octets, etc.) particularly fascinating to watch as well as to listen to. In this way, it is possible to sort out the shifting interactions of the players in the various subdivisional combinations of parts. This is a true octet, with eight players working as a totality.
Yet, in the regular subdivisions, I am tempted to discern passages that suggest not an octet texture, but that of a double quartet -- the juxtaposition of two distinct foursomes. The double quartet was, in fact, an idiom pursued by some other composers of the day, notably Louis Spohr. And I have experienced performances of this Mendelssohn work by two quartets seated in group opposition to each other. Such experience tempted me to want our two groups to do the same, rather than line up in strict sequence of eight instruments.
There are times when Mendelssohn makes subdivisional combinations that cut across any fixed distinction of two quartets, but even then the seating opposition might help point out the shifts in textures. Nevertheless, this is an integrated octet, by and large, and the Ancora-Rhapsody combination makes their positioning work out quite well.
They obviously enjoy enormously the chance to play together, and do so with exuberance and polish. A really exciting and inspiring performance!
The program will be presented a second time on Sunday afternoon, May 20, at 2:30 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society. Forget any weather problems and try to catch it. And, while revelling in the Mendelssohn, do listen carefully to the Prokofiev.