CNY Cafe Momus: Cypress String Quartet captures humor of Haydn, soul of Schubert

CNY Café Momus
March 20, 2010
by David Abrams

Cypress String Quartet captures humor of Haydn, soul of Schubert
The San Francisco-based ensemble's convincing Syracuse performance makes a persuasive argument for greater exposure

There's no shortage of first-rate string quartets on the circuit today, and over the course of the past 60 years the Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music has successfully hitched its wagon to some of the biggest names in the industry. Still, it is well to remember that good things often come in small packages.

Saturday evening's performance by the Cypress String Quartet, an ensemble that maintains a 90-plus yearly concert schedule yet remains hidden in the shadows of more high-profiled ensembles such as the Emerson, Orion, Tokyo and Takacs Quartets, demonstrated that it can hold its own against the very best of these venerable quartets.

Cypress' performance style combines precision ensemble work with spontaneity of execution, and the ensemble's manner of delivery suggests that the players are more focused on the journey into the musical adventure unfolding before them than any attempt to simply rehash an interpretation delivered earlier on the tour. Moreover, it's clear from their facial expressions and gesticulations that they enjoy playing with one-another.

Precision ensemble-work and evenness of pulse was evident from the running eighth-note accompaniment figures that begin Haydn's Op. 33 No.3 Quartet ("The Bird"), as the viola and second violin meshed into a single instrument. Like all six of the Op. 33 quartets, The Bird is a lighthearted and witty composition, and Cypress' playful execution of the many grace-note passages, particularly in the first two movements, helped keep the music suitably effervescent. Balance among the instruments was especially effective, particularly in the Scherzo (second) movement, with equal weighting among the four instruments.

The charming Adagio (third) movement, with its gently shaped melodic phrases virtually "sung" by the first violin, afforded the listener time to savor the lovely tone and seamless legato of the quartet's first violinist, Cecily Ward. A large part of Cypress' identity lay in the persona of Ward — a superb musician and dependable leader whose flawless technical facility, melodic grace, command of pitch and confident delivery forms the nucleus of this ensemble. Ward's 1681 Strad, on loan from the Stradivari Society, produces an exquisite tone whose brightly timbred colors are well suited for homophonic (melody and accompaniment) textures that require the first violin to dominate the instrumental texture, such as in the Haydn Op. 33 quartets.

Curiously, Cypress' handling of the last movement of the Haydn Quartet was somewhat of a disappointment, largely because the tempo (presto) was far too relaxed to capture the feisty dance-like atmosphere intended by Haydn. The anima returned at the final coda, however, bringing this sprightly work to a satisfactory conclusion.

The presence on the program of Schubert's String Quintet in C Major, D.956 (often called the Cello Quintet) requires a second cello, and for this occasion Cypress brought along frequent collaborator, Amit Peled. Had you never laid eyes upon the cellist, my guess is that you would nevertheless be able to single him out during a police lineup as the one who plays cello. Tall, handsome and charismatic, Peled commands the listener's attention as soon as he takes the stage.

Peled began Saturday's three-work program with J.S. Bach's Suite No. 2 for Unaccompanied Cello — which he curiously preceded with a two-minute, stylistically anachronistic "encore," in order to cash in, he explained to the crowd, on the reward of a free drink offered by one of the Cypress players for the "dare." Ironically, the unconventional placement of the "encore" helped prepare the audience for Peled's rather quirky rendition of the Bach Suite — whose delivery may perhaps best be described as more Peled than Bach.

Whatever else you may say about the Israeli cellist's interpretation, it is his own. And as is often the case in highly original interpretations of familiar works, some things work well — and some things don't. For example, those familiar with Baroque performance practice would no doubt take issue with Peled's overly effusive and oftentimes improvisatory execution of the dance movements — such as the frequent dramatic pauses and fermatas between phrases that would be better suited to Bach's toccatas than his dance suites.

Peled's interpretation of the one slow movement in this work, the Sarabande, was actually quite beautiful, with well-shaped and cleanly executed contrapuntal lines and an understated level of passion that gradually blossomed, ever so gradually, until the final cadence.

The program closed with an incredibly difficult work, and arguably one of the four or five best warhorses in the chamber music repertory: Schubert's mammoth Cello Quintet. When done well, this sublime work has the power to seize the listener and take him/her on a lengthy cathartic journey whose path leads to a composite spiritual experience where listener and performer are virtually inseparable. And while Saturday's performance fell somewhat short of the tour de force one always hopes for (but rarely experiences) in live performance, the Cypress Quartet and Peled combined to give a credible and musically satisfying rendition that swept the SFCM crowd to its feet with loud shouts of approval.

The ensemble in the opening movement (Allegro ma non troppo) was tight and secure, with good blend among the five instrumentalists and also between the pairs of instruments (first cellos, then violins) that state the second theme. Rhythmic execution was dependable throughout the movement, particularly with respect to the sixteenth-note pickup figures that permeate the development section. Still, the performers reached more into the listener's brain than soul in this movement, in part because the tempo wasn't sufficiently relaxed (Schubert indicates "not too fast"). The players captured many lovely moments during the first part of the ethereal second movement (Adagio), such as back-and-forth dialogue between first cello (Jennifer Kloetzel) and first violin (Ward), and especially during Ward's bel canto aria-like "singing" at the close of the movement. Unfortunately, the players could not quite pull out the stops during the über-dramatic second part of the movement necessary to release Schubert's unbridled passion. Cypress tried, and came close — but ultimately could not muster enough sound, energy and fury to achieve the composer's intended stark contrast to the muted first section.

The spirited Scherzo movement had good energy and was rhythmically secure throughout the syncopations, although the slow tempo (Schubert indicates Presto, very fast) took a lot of steam out of the engines in this otherwise exhilarating movement. More successful was Cypress' interpretation of the Triosection of the Scherzo, whose poignant delivery recalled the lamenting shades of the cathartic second movement. The ensemble's balance of tone and timbre during the hymn-like Trio section was particularly impressive.

The final movement (Allegretto) was convincing from start to finish, from the sharply edged contours of the beguiling gypsy-like theme to the dazzling coda. Ward's playing, in particular, was outstanding — as it was throughout the evening. If Ward could muster up more moxie when the music demands it, as she did during this movement, I'm convinced she could land a first violin chair in the any of the world's best, and most visible, string quartets.

Of course, I suspect she's having too much of a good time to leave Cypress...