Quartet Summons A Time And Place In Musical History

The Diderot String Quartet: Johanna Novom, violin; Paul Dwyer, cello; Kyle Miller, viola; and Adriane Post, violin.
(Photo: Tatiana Daukbek)
By Anne E. Johnson

NEW YORK — The 1840s in Leipzig were heady musical days, what with Schumann hitting his stride in the realm of chamber music and Mendelssohn using music to deal with personal loss. The Diderot String Quartet, with help from baritone Jesse Blumberg, aimed to give us a sense of that time and place in their May 16 recital at Manhattan’s Holy Trinity Lutheran Church.

The program comprised Schumann’s String Quartet Op. 41, No. 3, in A major, Mendelssohn’s String Quartet Op. 80, in F minor, and a variety of Lieder by Clara Wieck Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, and Brahms, arranged for baritone and string quartet. The night before, the Diderot had performed the same program at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

This young quartet’s calling card is their use of period instruments. Even for such comparatively late programming as Schumann and Mendelssohn, they stuck to their guns: gut strings without synthetic materials, no chin rests, shorter bows, flatter bridges, and standing to play (all but cellist Paul Dwyer, of course). They also attempted some historical-performance elements such as a looser interpretation of rhythm than is customary now and reduced vibrato. These historical elements came across with varying success.

Leipzig Thomaskirche in 1838, as Felix Mendelssohn saw and painted it from his window.

As the final piece in a set of three string quartets that Schumann pounded out in 1842, his Op. 41, No. 3 is a glorious homage both to the genre and to (many believe) his wife, Clara, to whom the first two Op. 41 quartets are dedicated. A motive of a falling fifth that opens the slow introduction and occurs many times in the first movement may represent the calling of her name. Nevertheless, the dedicatee of No. 3 is the Schumanns’ Leipzig friend Felix Mendelssohn.

Perhaps Adriane Post, on the first violin part, was trying to be democratic, allowing her colleagues equal voice. But the effect of her demure playing was that she did not lead. The gut strings and stilled vibrato, while giving the quartet a richly colored sound, further prevented Post from fulfilling her role. She also played so many slides between notes that I checked the score to be sure they weren’t notated. Indeed, portamento is known to have been fashionable until the mid-19th century, but the four Diderot musicians did not seem to agree on this point.

Since a group needs a leader, the task defaulted to cellist Dwyer, who provided the glue during that opening movement’s complex polyrhythms more typical of Brahms than Schumann. The ensemble playing was intelligent and careful. One could almost visualize the notes scrawled on their scores, telling them every nuance and detail. At first, the result was scholarly rather than moving. But during the aggressive patch of counterpoint in the middle of the second movement, something clicked; when the slower theme returned, the playing showed more confidence and natural motion.

For those who have wondered if it matters which violinist sits in the first chair, the Diderot’s performance of Mendelssohn’s Op. 80 provided a clear lesson. It was a different quartet with Johanna Novom at the helm.

With grief over his beloved sister Fanny’s death eating at his spirit, Mendelssohn wrote this final quartet in 1847. He died that same year at the age of 38. Rage barely describes the turmoil of the first movement’s opening phrases, and the Diderot raged as one. Novom, not afraid to be the strongest voice, led her team through the traumatic jungle, gut strings notwithstanding. All the self-consciousness was gone, replaced by convincing, heart-wrenching drama.

Even in his greatest pain, Mendelssohn displayed his usual matchless elegance. The Diderot found grace in dark despair and tugged lovingly at the composer’s long, melodic lines until they blossomed. The grim second movement, a triple-metered Allegro assai standing in for the traditional minuet or scherzo, was stormier than the unrelenting rain that battered the church’s stained-glass windows. Mendelssohn twists the scherzo’s “joke” trope by following anguished passages with breathy, choppy cadences that would be humorous in another context. The Diderot handled these tricky moments with exacting attention to each other.

Baritone Jesse Blumberg sang Lieder arrangements. (Arielle Doneson)

The musicians – and the ensemble – seemed to mature as the evening progressed. The slow third movement, opening with a disheartening descending pattern in the cello, brought all four voices into equal counterpoint, passing motions from one to the other and masterfully sculpting phrases that encompassed huge, quick dynamic jumps. The finale, marked Allegro molto, lets in what might be taken as a glimmer of hope with a trilling motif. Or maybe it’s a memory of happier days. In any case, it quickly swirls into a hellish tumble of syncopation, which showed off some virtuosic playing all around.

The Lieder were sprinkled before and after each quartet, in arrangements by composer Anne Lanzilotti. Her translations from piano to strings ranged from exquisite (Fanny Mendelssohn’s gossamer “Die Mainacht”) to overly busy (Clara Schumann’s “Liebeszauber”). The members of the Diderot seemed to relish the job of intertwining with a voice; they played the songs with great sensitivity.

Baritone Blumberg, known for his advocacy of both early and new music, began the concert with an open-hearted reading of Felix Mendelssohn’s “Morgengruß.” The folkish, Schubertian gem in lilting 9/8 was ideal for Blumberg’s pleasantly expressive style. Clara Schumann’s “Der Mond kommt still gegangen,” composed in a similar vein, was equally delightful. (There was an awkward moment after “Morgengruß” when the Diderot launched into the Schumann quartet while Blumberg was still standing onstage next to them. He had to make a distracting exit.)

While Blumberg gave a silken delivery of “Die Mainacht,” demonstrating control over a wide, fast-changing pitch range, he was less convincing in Brahms’ mighty “An eine Äolsharfe,” a deceptively complex work. Eduard Mörike’s poem about death and remembrance contains layers of meaning that I didn’t hear reflected in this performance. But Blumberg’s encore, Robert Schumann’s “Meine Rose” from the Op. 90 songs, was the perfect bittersweet balm after the emotional deluge of the Mendelssohn quartet.

Anne E. Johnson is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her arts journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Classical Voice North America, Chicago On the Aisle, and Copper: The Journal of Music and Audio. For many years she taught music history and theory in the Extension Division of Mannes School of Music.