Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Concert review: Cypress String Quartet leaves on a high note

Source: www.post-gazette.com
By Elizabeth Bloom
April 27, 2016

If you didn't see the Cypress String Quartet perform at Carnegie Music Hall this week, you probably missed your chance to hear them live.

The San Francisco-based quartet announced earlier this year that it will disband in June, so the ensemble’s concert on Monday represented both its debut and its swan song in the Chamber Music Pittsburgh series.

But the quartet’s legacy will live on in the form of a robust trail of recordings, including three of the four works featured on Monday's long program.

The Cypress also was somewhat modified for this debut-cum-finale, relying on a pair of guest performers: cellist Gary Hoffman, who had a long-planned cameo for works by Francois Couperin and Schubert, and violist David Harding, a member of the Carnegie Mellon University faculty who joined at the last minute because violist Ethan Filner was injured. It marked just the third time in the quartet's 20-year history that one of its members had to be replaced due to injury, and Mr. Harding slid into the group easily.

The concert was divided into two halves, with the second half incorporating Mr. Hoffman. Couperin’s “Pieces en Concert,” a five-piece suite arranged by Paul Bazelaire, was the surprise delight of the evening, competing with warhorses by Schubert and Beethoven.

This performance oozed the verve and elegance of French baroque music. Seated in front of the arched quartet, Mr. Hoffman delivered a full-bodied sound, fleshing out the varied part with extroversion and nuance. His gravelly, crunchy tone in La Tromba yielded to the muted, simple beauty of the following Plainte.

The group’s delivery of Schubert's beloved String Quintet in C major was spirited, if not not quite as pristine as its own excellent recording from 2014. At nearly an hour long, the physically demanding piece is something of a marathon. At its best, this account was detailed and energetic, such as the soft, feathery statement by the cellos of the second theme in the opening movement and the festive, muscular Scherzo. But some technical problems — rough entrances, intonation issues and shrillness among them — hampered the overall uniformity of the interpretation.

The first half juxtaposed Beethoven's last string quartet, the Quartet in F major, Op. 135, with Kevin Puts' “Lento Assai,” which is inspired by the slow third movement of the Beethoven piece. The churning “Lento Assai,” composed in 2008 for the Cypress, both quotes Beethoven and goes off in its own direction, with a fast, acerbic central section and poignant, if somewhat cinematic, melodies in the outer parts. It received a committed performance from the quartet, intimate yet haunting.

Beethoven’s quartet was characterized by fragile-as-glass delicacy in the opening movement and the controlled chaos of the second. Most moving was the unsentimental yet penetrating portrayal of the third movement, whose droning chords shifted like tectonic plates, slow yet deep, heaving the music forward.