Alexander Quartet Gets At Roots Of Penderecki ‘Leaves’

Taking on Penderecki’s 2008 ‘Leaves of an Unwritten Diary’: Alexander Sring Quartet musicians (left to right) Zakarias Grafilo, violin; Sandy Wilson, cello; Frederick Lifsitz, violin; and Paul Yarbrough, viola. (Photo by Shirley Singer)
By Jean Ballard Terepka

NEW YORK – With luminous intelligence and richly nuanced sensitivity, the Alexander String Quartet presented a substantive and innovative program on May 2 at the Baruch Performing Arts Center featuring Krzysztof Penderecki’s String Quartet No. 3 (Leaves of an Unwritten Diary). The concert concluded a daylong symposium on the topic of Poland and the Jewish people. For concert-goers who didn’t attend the conference, the program of Mozart, Penderecki, and Dvořák, together with a Ravel encore, offered its own rewarding intellectual coherence.

The Alexander String Quartet, consisting of violinists Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, co-founding violist Paul Yarbrough, and co-founding cellist Sandy Wilson, has been the quartet in residence at the City University of New York’s Baruch Center since 1986. The ensemble’s command of both traditional and contemporary music has contributed effectively to the center’s mission to convene conversations “across disciplines” as well as across Baruch College and New York City’s “panoply of world societies.”

Penderecki in 2008, the year he wrote ‘Leaves.’ (Wiki Commons)

The group’s presentation of Mozart’s String Quartet in E-flat, K. 428, set the tone for the evening. The Alexander’s warm, clean sound imbued the music with a sense of inviting spaciousness. Tenderness and vigor reflected the four instruments’ intimacy on the one hand and orchestral energy on the other.

The musicians paused for barely three minutes between the Allegro vivace fourth movement of the Mozart and the opening of Penderecki’s score. The impulse to so closely connect Mozart’s lively, confident optimism with Penderecki’s declarations of urgency in the face of historical questions and wise remembering was inspired.

Though Penderecki’s Third String Quartet, written on the occasion of his 75th birthday, is in no sense autobiographical, it does contain a series of reflections on inherited contexts and formative ideas, and the Mozart, as “introduction,” pointed up the Polish composer’s exploration of his own place in 20th- and 21st-century European history.

Penderecki’s quartet, barely 18 minutes long, isn’t divided into traditional movements; instead, it consists of an extended single movement, a series of sections that begin, develop, and unexpectedly stop in brief, bold silence, only to begin again at another place in the middle of a remembered idea. Passages of mournfulness open the work; martial assertions are intertwined with sweeping waltz gestures; an earthy, sensuous Romani folk-tune, passed down to Penderecki from his father, evokes both personal and national memories; the work’s conclusion is blazingly, stridently bold and then, by swift turns, quiet, gentle, and lyrical. The final hushed notes are delicate and open. The work ends not with termination, but with possibility.

The quartet is astonishingly difficult: It can only be successfully presented by the most virtuosic and skilled musicians. Rhythms bump up against each other with lighting speed; harmonies get fractured; even dissonances compete. In this accessible and moving work, the twists and stops retain their identifiable origins in the music and history from which Penderecki developed his own distinct voice.

The Alexander Quartet’s sound is clear, warm and rich. (Rory Earnshaw)

The American Quartet of Dvořák provided a return to the familiar. From the quick, sweet syncopations of the opening movement to the bravura exuberance of the last, the piece was splendidly performed. The exquisite second movement, Lento, was especially marvelous: Lush wistfulness and interior urgency were gracefully interdependent.

The Alexander sound is clear, warm, and rich; its cohesion comes in part from the musicians’ close collaboration. But the sense that the four instruments played by the musicians all “belong” to each other is very real. The two violins, viola, and cello are known as the Ellen M. Egger Quartet and were made in 1987 by San Francisco violin maker Francis Kuttner.

At the end of the concert, the audience applauded enthusiastically and expressed collective delight at the announcement of an encore in honor of the quartet’s many years of happy collaboration with Baruch. The intense, gorgeous grandeur of the last movement of Ravel’s String Quartet in F major was exhilarating.

A life-long New Yorker, Jean Ballard Terepka has been writing about classical, contemporary, and international music for twenty years. She is also a historian and archivist, serving on the boards of the National Episcopal Historians and Archivists and the Harlem African Burial Ground Task Force.