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MUSIC REVIEW : Quartet Times 2 Equals Excellence at Irvine Barclay

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It was a sort of unofficial Orange County Quartet Festival, what with two excellent ensembles--the Alexander and Angeles string quartets--on the same bill at the Irvine Barclay Theatre on Saturday.

Each group exhibited its wares in a solo outing. Southern California’s Angeles performed Haydn’s Quartet in D, Opus 20, No. 4, music of precariously delicate balances, understated wit and, in its slow movement, killing poignancy.

The San Francisco-based Alexander followed with the dazzle and exposed nerve-endings of Janacek’s screeching, beseeching First String Quartet, subtitled “Kreutzer Sonata,” after Tolstoy’s story of passion and betrayal.

The Angeles dispatched Haydn’s subtle marvel in a reading that combined internal balance, rhythmic thrust and emotional restraint, achieving its high point--as Haydn does his--in the slow movement, highlighted on this occasion by Stephen Erdody’s hushed, beautifully molded statement of the cello variation.

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Subtlety has nothing to do with Janacek’s gut-wrencher, written not for an ensemble in the usual sense but for supercharged individuals who frequently collide, to send off even more emotional and sonic sparks.

The particular appeal of the Alexander’s performance lay in maintaining Janacek’s quirky imbalances, in which the first violin is the anguishedly lyrical solo singer pitted against a trio of opponents, throwing salvos of angry tremolos and barbed spiccatos at each other before all four meet, utterly spent, in the final measures.

First violinist Ge-Fang Yang sang the first violin part with the alternating grittiness and lushness of tone that is Janacek to the core, while his colleagues acted the parts of the antagonists with menacing appropriateness.

Then it was party time, with the ensembles joining for the expendable Pieces for String Octet, Opus 11, by a very young and green Shostakovich, and the inexpendable, incomparable Octet by an equally young, but already masterly Felix Mendelssohn.

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Mendelssohn, to say nothing of the appreciative capacity audience, profited from having the music played not by the usual and usually scrappy “string quartet and friends,” where the listener has to be content with the feeling that the performers are having a great time, but by two strong string quartets.

The details of this treasurable score were fully and glowingly exposed. For once, the Andante asserted its exquisitely refined, memorable songfulness rather than serving merely as the lull between the grand, swaggering opening movement and the magical Scherzo.

Indeed, the whole of Mendelssohn’s youthful masterpiece was superbly served by eight strong players, working as a cohesive unit under its composer-appointed leader, the first violinist--in this instance the Alexander’s Yang, whose incisively sweet, true tone and propulsive rhythmicity never wavered.

The evening was part of the Laguna Chamber Music Series.

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