The Melos Quartet's reputation is based on a sizable catalogue of recordings, amassed in the quarter-century since its founding, that generally convey a low-key interpretive stance in conjunction with finely-honed technique.
On the occasion of its Coleman Chamber Concert on Sunday at Caltech's Beckman Auditorium, technical polish and emotional engagement proved equally elusive.
From first violinist Wilhelm Melcher's initial, painfully mistuned down-bow in Haydn's Quartet in F, Opus 77, No. 2, to the scrambled, underemphatic (in this instance) final chords of the Schumann A-major Quartet, this was an afternoon that both depressed the spirit and grated on the ear.
The Melos approach to Haydn did nothing to perpetuate the image of a composer who even when not at his most inspired, as is the case in this, his last completed quartet, wrote with energy and a modicum of wit. The four players--Melcher; second violinist Gerhard Voss; violist Hermann Voss, and cellist Peter Buck, the least culpable of the lot--slogged through the piece aimlessly, unincisively and often inaccurately.
Bartok was equally unable to light any sparks with his brief, compact and (usually) harrowing Third Quartet. Here, where pinpoint accuracy is more difficult to discern and perhaps less critical than dramatic intensity, the thin-toned West Germans seemed disinterested in conveying the score's tensions.
Finally, Schumann neither sang, nor soared nor excited. He merely lay there, energy sapped, passions dulled.