Leipzig String Quartet Upholds Artist Recital Series Excellence

Jarrett Hoffman, Staff Writer

The esteemed Leipzig String Quartet performed in Finney Chapel on Sunday, March 3, the latest performers featured as part of Oberlin’s Artist Recital Series. Three of its founding members hail from the world-famous Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, one of the oldest symphony orchestras in the world. Impressively, the Quartet has had only one personnel change in its 25 years, a fact that cellist Matthias Moosdorf attributes simply to their enjoyment of chamber music.

Known for their great versatility, the group has recorded the complete quartets of Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn and Brahms, as well as the composers of the Second Viennese School. For this tour, though, they opted for all Beethoven, presenting the composer’s complete cycle of string quartets. For some of their tour concerts they are inviting audiences to choose which three of his sixteen quartets they will play. Such an innovative and impressive experiment with programming would likely have been a fun experience for audience members here as well, but for this concert the group simply chose one quartet from each of Beethoven’s three periods: early, middle and late.

Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 18, No. 6, “La Maliconia,” the last of Beethoven’s early quartets, provided a solid starting point for the program. The performers were well attuned to the mood of the piece, especially in the playful Scherzo-Allegro third movement and the emotional fourth movement, La Malinconia, from which the piece gets its name. There, Beethoven instructs the performers to play “with the greatest delicacy,” a direction the group followed with grace.

Written in 1810, about 10 years after the sixth quartet, Quartet in F minor, Op. 95, “Serioso” is considered the last of Beethoven’s middle-period quartets and is markedly different in character. The piece’s sudden changes in tone, texture and tonality — perhaps reminiscent of the bombings of 1809 as Napoleon invaded Vienna — were executed with supreme confidence. The relative brevity of the work compared to the other quartets on the program made the group’s interpretation even more remarkable.

Fifteen roller-coaster years passed between the releases of “Serioso” and Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 127, the first of Beethoven’s late quartets. While the 11th was characterized by sudden contrast, the 12th unfolded subtly, each musical idea finding its way into another as if through invisible passages in the air. Lacking the engaging rawness of the 11th quartet, the 12th was satisfying in its own more intellectual way, but provided a slightly disappointing ending to the concert.

Strongly committed to education as well as performance, the individual members of the Leipzig Quartet also gave master classes in Conservatory classrooms on Sunday and Tuesday. Double-degree junior Luke Adamson and Conservatory junior Julia Henderson, both cellists, appreciated having their chamber groups coached by Leipzig’s first violinist Stefan Arzberger.

“A lot of his comments were useful for us,” Adamson said, adding that although chamber music coachings can sometimes get stuck on differences of opinion between the coach and group on minor details, Arzberger instead focused on refining the way the group approached the piece holistically. Henderson’s quartet, whose first violinist could not attend, enjoyed the opportunity of having Arzberger sit in with them. Henderson said, “He was fun to play with and had lots of energy.”

Masterful performers — though intonation caused occasional problems throughout the concert — the Leipzig Quartet were refreshing and entertaining in their demeanor onstage. In between pieces, when typical outside sounds interrupted the silence of the chapel, rather than glaring or waiting solemnly for the noise to end, the group drew laughs as they smiled at the randomness of life invading the often restrained atmosphere of the concert hall.