Jupiter String Quartet Evokes Violence, Emotional Drama

From the Oberlin Review:

There is a remarkable murder scene in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors in which the character who ordered the death comes across the corpse and, stricken by guilt, collapses onto a bed with the bloody body at his feet. All of this is accompanied by the first movement of Franz Schubert’s String Quartet No. 15 in G major, D. 887. It is an incredibly moving scene, in large part because Schubert’s sublime music heightens both the violence and the intense emotional drama that ensues. Most people think of Schubert as a lyrical composer of pleasant music, yet that scene exposes the darker undercurrent in his work.

In a Nov. 18 concert, the Jupiter String Quartet, currently Quartet-in-Residence at the Conservatory, accomplished the same overwhelming sense of the sinister by pairing Alban Berg’s String Quartet, Op. 3 with that same Schubert quartet, his last.

Cellist Daniel McDonough prefaced the concert by explaining that both Berg and Schubert grew up and worked in Vienna. Throughout the course of the concert, less superficial connections also became apparent.

The Berg quartet, performed first, is an intensely expressive work full of rich shadings. The first movement focuses on a twisting theme that is often followed by dissonant chords that stutter into silence. The theme sounds like a distorted spasm of pain, punctuated by coughs that bring the sufferer back to his or her misery. Later in the movement, those stuttering chords repeat to become a grotesque march, while the theme repeatedly surfaces from every instrument like smoke spiraling up from an incense bier.

The second movement begins with a slashing gesture from the violin, surrounded by pizzicatos and tremolos. A single note is then dwelled upon with dreadful intensity, creating an all-consuming feeling of anxiety. This is cruelly heightened as the different members of the quartet begin to throw lacerating phrases at each other, as if the group has devolved into a desolate band where it’s every man for himself. The Jupiter Quartet rendered this desperate violence masterfully, trading phrases with incredible precision. Part of the joy of watching the quartet players play is observing their communication through minute gestures and glances, so that every attack is razor-sharp and perfectly synchronized. Their impeccable communication was also evident in their balancing all the lines in a strongly contrapuntal work, never causing confusion as to which melody was important.

The Schubert quarter contained a similar savagery, though this time the violence is more psychological than external. The first movement rapidly changes between peaceful repose and tormented anguish, yielding some of the most poignant moments of the evening’s performance.

Rather than letting up in the second movement, the psychological drama continues with a gorgeous, melancholy piece. This was interrupted by a fierce interlude, punctuated throughout by a biting two-note motif. The Jupiter Quartet threw itself at this motif, causing hearts to leap into throats every time it appeared. Another parallel between the Berg and Schubert becomes evident here in the strong counterpoint present throughout the work, again expertly navigated by the Jupiter Quartet.

The scherzo features a memorable theme traded between instruments. Its quick pace and repeated notes allow no reprieve from the intensity of the previous movements. That only comes in the last movement, where an aggressive melody switches between major and minor, becoming a sweet folk song at the end in a final demonstration of Schubert’s characteristic lyricism.

The Jupiter Quartet received a strongly deserved extended ovation for exposing the similarities between two seemingly dissimilar pieces and for enduring such an emotionally exhausting program. Maybe, to give itself a break, the Quartet’s next program should draw from the soundtrack to Annie Hall.

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