Cassatt Quartet rocks the boat with intense Shostakovich at Bargemusic

Mon Sep 09, 2013 at 6:35 pm
The Cassatt Quartet performed works  of Beethoven, Faure and Shostakovich Sunday at Bargemusic.

The Cassatt Quartet performed works of Beethoven, Faure and Shostakovich Sunday at Bargemusic.

Over the past 28 years, the Cassatt Quartet has built a name for itself in New York City as a formidable ensemble, steeped in collaboration with composers and performers alike. Sunday afternoon’s concert with Ursula Oppens at Bargemusic was no exception as they presented a traditional program of Shostakovich, Beethoven, and Faure.

The recital opened with Shostakovich’s String Quartet, No. 8 in C minor, op. 110. A stark and arresting piece of music, it’s a slow climb, and a tricky way to open an afternoon concert on a beautiful fall day, but the quartet did so with conviction.

The Cassatt Quartet did not shy from extremes, and at times, the opening notes were barely a whisper, without the faintest amount of vibrato or color. Despite the exposed sound, the members never wavered. In fact, they sounded more at ease in these archetypal transparent Shostakovich textures than anywhere else in the recital. As they burst into the faster Allegro molto, the players were not afraid to let “ugly” sounds come out, bows scraping against their instruments, the grotesque and humorous sides of the composer conveyed. But the true strength of this performance was in the quieter sections, as they juxtaposed these fiery outbursts with quiet resignation.

Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat Major, op. 74, was written in 1809. The work is an unusual piece in Beethoven’s chronology, coming at the end of a creative surge following the composer’s famous Heiligenstadt Testament. The work’s accessibility is a stark difference from the previous three quartets commissioned by Count Razumovsky and the following op. 95. Lyrical, contemplative, and expressive, this work seems to hark to an earlier period and style, but all the while still replete with the Romantic Beethoven trimmings.

The opening Poco adagio was beautifully rendered in its classical simplicity, but the Allegro that emerged felt timid in the Cassatt performance with the requisite Beethoven’s fire lacking. The Presto was played with fitful verve, but few risks were taken and the timid performance felt almost like it was being played by rote.

The venerable Ursula Oppens joined the Cassatt members to round out the program with Fauré’s Piano Quintet No. 1 in D minor, op. 89. With a long history together, the ensemble and Oppens seemed perfectly at ease with each other. Here, in the rich Romantic string writing, the Cassatt Quartet truly shone with cohesive playing, the string musicians leaning into the lush string writing in a way they hadn’t in the previous works.

Oppens, who has made a name for herself playing new works and commissioning composers, always seems to make time for the more traditional repertoire. The opening piano figure got off on an uneven footing, but the pianist’s playing became more assured as the work unfolded. Oppens provided sensitive balancing with her colleagues but the piano’s arpeggio figures often seemed thin, and without dynamic nuance.

The third movement, however, was superb, Oppens carrying off her piano melody with a quintessential French style without undue sentiment. It took shape in its simplicity and propelled the string players into the fantastic final movement.

Bargemusic will perform a memorial concert 7 p.m. Wednesday September 11 with works of Bach, Brahms, Schubert, and Chopin.

Sophia Vastek is a pianist, music director, and coach living in New York City. She has previously written for ionarts in Washington, DC.

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