MUSIC REVIEW : Mendelssohn String Quartet Plays Haydn, Shostakovich, Dvorak

Times Staff Writer

The sunny extroversion of Haydn and the knotty, shifting moods of Shostakovich evoked sympathetic responses from the New York-based Mendelssohn String Quartet at Laguna Beach High School on Wednesday.

But the lush Romanticism of Dvorak remained a closed book.

Perhaps part of the problem is that over the past 3 years, the youthful quartet--which was formed only a decade ago--has lost its original first violinist and violist, a major disruption in such a group.

In fact, the picture in the program provided by the Laguna Beach Chamber Music Society did not represent the quartet that actually played as part of the society’s series.


Violist Ira Weller, who is seen in the picture, has been replaced by Kathryn Murdock (who appeared with the quartet when it played a similar concert in Los Angeles about 3 months ago).

First violinist Ida Levin joined the group in 1987. Only violinist Nicholas Mann and cellist Marcy Rosen remain from the original quartet, which was one of the winners in the 1981 Young Concert Artists’ International Auditions.

Apparently there has not been enough time to combine focus with depth and variety. (Or even, evidently, to pose for a new photo.) On Wednesday, the music-making occasionally was tentative and over-dominated by Levin.

Still, in Haydn’s Quartet in C, Opus 20, No. 2, the players maintained light, buoyant and bright textures, skittering nimbly through the final four-part fugue as if it was an elfin scherzo composed by the quartet’s namesake.

In Shostakovich’s Ninth Quartet, the players imparted vigor and clarity to the composer’s tense, impacted rhythms and his kaleidoscopic textures and ruminations.

If they failed to make the work a strongly personal document, their formal approach was workable.

Not so in Dvorak’s Quartet in A-flat, Opus 105, where the ensemble’s patrician clarity and balance, restraint in vibrato and lack of full-bodied utterances all suggested a deliberate--but wrong-headed--purgation of the composer’s 19th-Century rhetoric or, worse, perhaps even ignorance of appropriate style.

Additionally, Levin could be edgy, forced and aggressive in tone, particularly under pressure, while Mann and the others remained steadfastly self-effacing.


All that remained of the composer’s wondrous music was its structural outlines, hardly a fair trade for the missing expressivity.