Saturday, January 24, 2015

St. Lawrence String Quartet at LOC

The St. Lawrence String Quartet presented the final installation in a series of three concerts at the Library of Congress' Coolidge auditorium last night with the second public hearing of a major new work by John Adams (Coolidge, not Luther, whose work was being featured across town at the Atlas), his String Quartet No. 2.

Adams, who was on hand to introduce the piece, has delivered an enthralling, eminently satisfying work that deserves to be an instant classic in his catalogue. Built on two small fragments from Beethoven's Op. 110 piano sonata and a nub from one of the Diabelli Variations, the quartet kaleidoscopes around these bits of familiar information in a richly imaginative procession of ideas. Adams' driving sense of rhythm is always present, animating some edge-of-the seat, feverish passages that dissolve and reassemble these motivic germs at blistering speed in the Allegro molto and the finale. But the Andantino also contains wandering moments of haunting stillness. Of the two occasionally deserved complaints that come to mind about Adams' work--eschewing  minimalist austerity in favor of a playfulness that is fun but forgettable and overindulgence in a slack emotionalism that can overstay its welcome--neither can have any place in an honest evaluation of this earnest, winning piece. The St. Lawrence Quartet made exhilarating sense of the work's intricate details and brought the house to its feet.

The rest of the program was a delightful introduction to the group, which I had never heard before. The opener, Haydn's Op. 33 "Joke" Quartet was brimming with ideas and a welcome refusal to take things too seriously. Obviously kind of a prerequisite given the topic, but even before the well-handled "payoff" at the end, this was Haydn at its most inviting with no trace of portentousness. Meaty second half Dvorak (here the Op. 61 Quartet in C major) can sometimes feel like a chore when the most interesting programming has been saved for the first half, but the St. Lawrence doggedly kept the audience's attention, digging out all the naked Brahmsian beauty on offer in the Poco adagio e molto cantabile. An encore was a final fugue from one of Haydn's Op. 20 string quartets.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Matthew Polenzani in Recital

Matthew Polenzani has been a constant presence at the Met for well over twenty years now, frequently inspiring reviewers to adjectives like "reliable" and "always X" that are no small achievement on the fickle operatic stage. The reasons why the Met and other leading houses around the world keep returning to him, are clear enough: that winning marriage of a light, attractive sound with plenty of ping, volume capable of filling the biggest Met-sized barns, and an easy stage presence shows no signs of dissolving anytime soon. He is the kind of singer that makes everything look effortless without stopping to assure you its difficult, and yes, that kind of thing can be easy to take for granted.

So it was a welcome treat to hear Polenzani take on unfamiliar rep in an intimate space last Wednesday with collaborator Julius Drake at the piano, in a recital presented by Vocal Arts DC. Perhaps the least successful selection of the evening was the opening number, Beethoven's "Adelaide" (Op. 46), a tough choice for a lead off that Polenzani had trouble making sense of while still in warm up mode. But things quickly corrected themselves with two winning sets of songs by Franz Liszt. Polenzani and Drake, who have recorded a volume of Liszt's songs, easily made converts of the room. Both sets, a grab bag of texts by German poets and a French series on poems of Victor Hugo, entrance with intimations of Debussy and other things to come. Polenzani carefully etched the character of each in thoughtful readings--marred only occasionally by the opera singer tendency to punch up the volume beyond what the recital will bear.

The second half offered a set of amuse-bouches by Erik Satie, slightly more substantial settings by Ravel that allowed Polenzani a bit more of a chance to deploy his more familiar lyric gifts, and closing with a curious set of Barber songs. Encores did a nice job of balancing a bit of indulgence without sacrificing the overall tone of the evening. Reynaldo Hahn's familiar "Parquetto" from his songs of Venice, offered something adjacent to the Italianate splendor we love in Polenzani's Alfredo without taking us out of the recital setting.