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Review: Miró String Quartet offers Schubert, Brahms at UT Austin concert


Miró String Quartet
The Miró String Quartet in Concert
September 16 – Bates Recital Hall, UT Austin

There is an unfortunate tendency in modern chamber music groups to work towards twin goals of tight ensemble and total blend of sound, a sort of self-obliteration that is supposed to allow for “playing as one.”   The concept of a “permanent” string quartet is perhaps the chief culprit here.  Many professional quartets work together from their college years; if they get lucky, there are thousands of rehearsals and concerts, numerous recordings, a residency at a university.  The quartet members learn each other’s musical personalities and gradually forge a sound that is staggering in its unity.  No one member stands out, there is only the group.

Though such groups are capable of an ensemble wizardry that Schubert and Brahms could never have experienced, the aural effect is one of sameness.  From work to work, the sound itself changes little; one hears only a beautiful blend of four stringed instruments offering inoffensive ideas that will neither shock nor dismay the listener, who is rewarded with a sort of musical “perfection” similar to the sterile perfection of a recording studio.

This perfect, amiable sonic blend was on display in the Miró String Quartet‘s interpretation of the Schubert Quartettsatz (D. 703).  Edges were rounded off, the shocking dynamics were blunted.  Worst of all, first violinist Daniel Ching seemed unwilling to allow his numerous melodic lines to truly soar above the rest of the group.   The interplay between the raging menace of the first theme and the heart-rending second theme is the main thrust of Schubert’s argument, yet with the raging kept to a minimum and the first violin’s lyricism muted, one was forced to ask, what was the point?  It seemed as if the group realized this in the coda, suddenly offering an eloquent vehemence that made me sit up in my chair; here was the beating heart of Schubert, the despairing undercurrents swirling to the surface, but it was too late.

The Brahms Quartet (op. 51/1) was an improvement, mostly due to an increased willingness to raise the dynamics on both sides of the spectrum.  Issues of balance still came repeatedly to the fore, however.  Sandy Yamamato’s second violin lines were never assertive enough to break through the other three instruments.  Her contributions were audible, but not present enough to give the harmony the poignancy of Brahms’ inner-voice progressions.  Similarly, Josh Gindele’s cello support was always audible, but lacked the near-symphonic heft for which the composer’s bass lines cry out.

The Sextet (op. 36) puttered along for three movements with no discernable high point.  The third movement in particular cries out for clear delineation of voices and a careful progression towards a climax.  It was as if the Miró and their guests had abandoned Brahms to fend for himself via instrumentation alone, avoiding any semblance of individuality.  The blend was marvelous, as always, but the work needs six different voices singing in unison, not a single voice with miraculous pitch-bending abilities.  The fourth movement was a bit more rough and ready, and perhaps as a result, each performer gave more of themselves.  The sonic sameness dissolved, and we were allowed to experience each player’s ideas in the intriguing back and forth that Brahms intended.

My quibbles about the group’s timbre are only part of the overall picture.  When the Miró tries for a true pianissimo, the result is magical.  The technical abilities of each performer are astounding; I have never heard such a perfectly-tuned chord from two separate players as in the final note of the Brahms Quartet’s Romanze.  With such abundant gifts, the Miró should be willing to take more chances.  Lead the listeners to hear each line, help us to understand how the separate parts create a sublime whole.  It isn’t enough to offer a perfectly calibrated, streamlined presentation.  We the audience must be shown the way, we must be forced to participate, and if that means the occasional imbalance or rough edge, then such is the price of live performance.

Before the Brahms works, violist John Largess made remarks, a practice of which I generally approve, but which didn’t quite come off.  There were patronizing tidbits (“Brahms was a German composer”), oversimplifications (“Brahms was considered a ‘retro’ composer in his time”), and a number of mangled facts (“Brahms…died in [his] 80s.”).  Mr. Largess should feel free to make whatever remarks he wants, but UT would do well to let go some of the legions of ushers and use the liberated funds to hire a member of their music history faculty for the purpose of informative yet entertaining program notes.

The audience was most appreciative, with the student contingent voicing their raucous approval.

The Miró String Quartet
Daniel Ching, violinist
Sandy Yamamoto, violinist
John Largess, violist
Josh Gindele, cellist
with special guests Christopher Luther, violist; Samuel Johnson, cellist
Bates Recital Hall, September 16th – 7:30 PM