March Music Moderne review: Arnica Quartet plays Britten

Arnica Quartet performed at March Music Moderne.

Arnica Quartet performed at March Music Moderne.

By JEFF WINSLOW

If the Arnica Quartet‘s March 14 overview of British 20th century master Benjamin Britten’s three string quartets at Portland’s Community Music Center was any indication, their April 5 reprise of his last quartet, largely written in Venice, seems likely to be a vital if somewhat poignant addition to the Portland Art Museum’s ongoing Venice exhibition – provided they can soak up a little of the Adriatic warmth emanating from the masterworks on display.

I initially had my doubts. Their March Music Moderne  concert began with Britten’s 1941 quartet, his first and maybe the most difficult of the three. The exotic opening, featuring softly tangy chords in string stratosphere, challenges even the most accomplished of ensembles, as does relentlessly extended syncopation in wild contrasting episodes. And that’s just the first movement! It’s the work of a composer still young, still inclined to show off by pushing boundaries, and no doubt conflicted about his impending homecoming in the midst of WWII after a three-year sojourn to the US. Arnica’s performance was likewise unsettled and uneven, especially in that opening passage and its two later incarnations.

However, they got into the groove in time for the second quartet, which opens with a genial, slightly wistful melody spun out seemingly endlessly in octaves. Such octaves are standard procedure in string writing, but can be tricky for players to tune. The Arnica players were locked in from the first, and I relaxed and settled in to enjoy myself. Maybe Britten, when he wrote it in 1945, was beginning to relax from wartime jitters also.

Nor did contrasting sections in which each player skittered across all four strings cause any concern. The contrasts amped up in the frenetic second movement, with its short octave barks reminiscent of the final sacrificial dance in Igor Stravinsky’s iconic Rite of Spring, but the Arnica held steady. When they finally arrived at the rich, triumphant chords that resolve the dilemma of the concluding Chacony movement, an epic journey (longer than the other two movements put together) that begins with bold steps nonetheless at odds with each other, the rapt audience burst into well-deserved and enthusiastic applause.

To warm us up for the journey, the Arnica prefaced the quartet with a much older English Chacony, by Baroque composer Henry Purcell. It was more of a stroll, but it had its moments of conflict also, for example where the top line ascended the raised form of the minor scale while the bass resolutely stuck to the descending form. In the study of counterpoint this is called a “cross relation,” aptly conjuring up the odd reunion squabble.

Britten’s final string quartet, written in 1975, seems from another world. Written a few years after his last opera, Death in Venice, and only a year before his own passing, it is full of strange obsessions and asides, quite different from his earlier, assertive narratives. The opening Duets movement stalls again and again on reverberating echoes, or are they just sick lungs wheezing? The following Ostinato can’t seem to get beyond one querulous if colorful outburst, though it unexpectedly tails off at the end. Then, after a pining Solo and a Burlesque larded with grotesqueries, comes the final Recitative and Passacaglia, with its recurring, ominous tread – left, right, left, right – worrying the composer’s efforts at sublime contemplation.

And yet, the warmth of Italy touches it all. The final movement, after all, is subtitled “La Serenissima” in honor of the city and historical republic of Venice, where much of the quartet was written. If Britten was troubled by somber thoughts, it seems that he could also spare attention for the pleasures of the place. The Arnica’s expert performance focused just a little too much on the somber side, or maybe they were simply concentrating on polishing their ensemble. I think they proved their point, and for the museum audience, they should loosen up a little, ruffle the surface and let the light play here and there.

Extra points go to Arnica violist Charles Noble for his interesting and well-composed short talks prefacing each quartet. Even Oregon Symphony patrons who have enjoyed his occasional program notes might be pleasantly surprised to hear his lively reading, rendering unnecessary his self-deprecating apology for not speaking extemporaneously. In a vaguely similar way, if the performances of the two later quartets had a significant fault, it was that they were too careful. I encourage the Arnica to take deep breaths, lean on each other, and go for the golden moments, inspiring those who have come to view The Golden Age of Venice.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist, who thanks to this concert is rapidly becoming a fan of Britten’s string quartets.

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