There was little doubt as to what the Vermeer String Quartet brought to the Wilshire Ebell Theatre on Wednesday night. In this final program in the Music Guild's 1989-90 season, the Chicago-based ensemble offered dignity, grace and refinement. What they did not bring--initially, at least--was a sense of adventure.
The program began with an extremely polished account of Mozart's Quartet in A, K. 464. And although the veteran ensemble exhibited first-rate control and faultless rhythmic unity, the four displayed little sense of urgency and allowed Mozart to emerge cool, even sterile.
Each musician produced an elegant, suave tone, free of edginess, and the combined sound proved pure and resonant. Yet rarely did any of the four give palpable shape to melodic lines; much of the time the music simply stagnated.
After Mozart, the foursome (violinists Shmuel Ashkenasi and Pierre Menard, violist Richard Young and cellist Marc Johnson) gave a gentlemanly account of Shostakovich's Fourth Quartet, keeping dynamics--and audience members' heartbeats--at moderate levels.
They didn't exactly vitiate the work--playing this precise, this refined is all but impossible to admire--but, aside from the climactic C-major section in the final movement, the music displayed little of the bite and energy that it can.
After intermission, pianist Mona Golabek joined the four string players in offering Schumann's Quintet in E-flat, Opus 44. Whether or not it was the pianist's presence, something energized the ensemble, for the music making became more vital and more exciting. Here the players exercised arching lyricism, expressive nuances and considerably more dynamic variety.
Balances, on the whole, remained equitable, but string players often failed sufficiently to bring out important melodic lines. Ashkenasi exhibited a surprising reluctance to soar, as if he were afraid of over-dominating. Moreover, rapid-note passages, such as those found in the Scherzo, occasionally dogged this performance.