by Daniel Hathaway

TheUtrecht-SQ Utrecht String Quartet made Rocky River the first stop on its brief tour of the US on Monday evening, January 14, in a fresh and fascinating program of little-heard repertory by Verhulst, Mendelssohn and Sibelius at the West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church. Though only violist Joël Waterman is Dutch by birth, all of the ensemble’s members (violinists Eeva Koskinen, from Finland, Katherine Routley, from Australia and cellist Sebastian Koloski, from Germany) gravitated to the Netherlands and to the charming canal city of Utrecht, where they teach and play in other groups when not appearing as a quartet. When they do, to judge by Monday evening’s performance, their playing is always thoughtful, lively and infectious. The near-capacity audience was obviously captivated.

The program began with a charming quartet by the 19th century Dutch composer Johannes Verhulst (1816-1891), a friend and admirer of Schumann and Mendelssohn who spent his career keeping the “Music of the Future” of Liszt and Wagner at bay. The first of Verhulst’s three quartets — cellist Sebastian Koloski noted that the group had discovered it “in a library” — pays homage to both of his heroes. The second movement Adagio is songlike in the style of R.S. and the third movement Scherzo — the first of several on Monday’s program — owes its genes to F.M. The sweet and skittery opening Allegro and the energetic Presto con fuoco put the quartet’s virtuosity and ensemble playing to the test, and they rose to the challenge skilfully. A few moments of gratuitous chromaticism left only a small blotch on Verhulst’s musical character. (Players looking for new repertory can download parts for all three of his quartets here).

Though it’s sometimes referred to as a “Quartet”, Mendelssohn’s op. 81 is really a gathering of single movements compiled by his publisher three years after his death. The first two were late works, written immediately after the f minor quartet in 1847, while the fourth, a fugue in E-flat, was a student exercise crafted in 1827. The brooding third movement, oddly titled Capriccio, was penned in 1843. It’s not really a surprise that the four movements seem to have little to do with each other outside of sharing a certain Mendelssohnian spirit. Disjunct or not, the individual movements are delightful and the Utrecht Quartet put them across in spirited performances. Oddly enough, the student fugue, energetic and scherzo-like, was the most substantial of the four.

After intermission, another rarity: Sibelius’s only venture into writing for the string quartet, his opus 56 subtitled Voces Intimae. Abstractly wonderful, its five movements (the first two played together) explore permutations of the opening theme, given out in a dialogue between first violin and cello. Or perhaps that’s only the germ of a theme that appears in many different guises as the movements develop. However you perceive it, the piece is highly integrated, knit together by melodic gestures that are at times almost subliminal. And there are surprises: sudden episodes of lush chords that contrast with the starkness of textures that went before; an arresting chorale that comes out of nowhere; a persistent litany from the first violin; a rustic dance in the middle of a scherzo; surprising unison textures at the end. Op. 56 is endlessly inventive through the course of its half-hour duration. The Utrecht Quartet gave it a thoroughly compelling performance and won a standing ovation from the audience.

Next on the Rocky River Chamber Music Series: The Capitol Saxophone Quartet plays on Monday, March 4 at 7:30 at West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church. All concerts in the series are free.

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Published on ClevelandClassical.com January 15, 2013

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