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Princeton University Summer Series Closes With Another Precise and Elegant Ensemble

Nancy Plum

Ensô String Quartet, the last of the chamber ensembles to appear in the Princeton University Summer Concert series, derives its name from the Japanese zen painting of the circle which represents many things, including (as described in their biography) "perfection and imperfection, the moment of chaos that is creation, the emptiness of the void, the endless circle of life, and the fullness of the spirit." However, their concert on Wednesday night at Richardson Auditorium was more European than Japanese in theme, and Russian in particular, as the quartet performed music of Ignaz Josef Pleyel, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Ludwig van Beethoven. The concerts in the Summer Series this year have explored a wide range of ensembles and playing styles, and the Ensô String Quartet demonstrated just how sublime a string quartet can be.

Ignaz Josef Pleyel was a student of Haydn, and composed in most genres of the late 18th century, ranging from symphonies to music for the hurdy-gurdy. He was firmly committed to the string quartets of Haydn, and his own String Quartet in B-flat Major continues the same structure and techniques which Haydn had brought to perfection.

From the opening Allegro, the Ensô Quartet's sound was very unified and not overly loud, this ensemble commands the attention of its audience by making them listen. The rich harmonies of Pleyel's music clearly mark a path from the Classical to Romantic periods, and the quick shifts to minor keys were subtly sprung upon the audience by the quartet. Second violinist John Marcus brought a sharper and brighter sound to the ensemble than first violinist Maureen Nelson, and cellist Richard Belcher demonstrated a very clean and clear tone. Joined by violist Rob Brophy, the quartet moved effortlessly through sections of both paired instruments and full ensemble playing in the final Rondo.

The concert took a Russian turn with Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8 in c minor. A quartet in which half the movements are in the tempo of Largo might seem ominous, but the members of Ensô found musical variety and great diversity of sound within the five movements. Like many Shostakovich works, this piece tells a story, in this case inspired by the wartime remains of Dresden, which moved Shostakovich to dedicate the Quartet to "the victims of fascism and war," including himself. The opening cello theme, musically spelling Shostakovich's name and repeated fugally by the rest of the quartet, was played with an intensity and nuance that indicated an understanding of Shostakovich's intent. The quartet's playing of this particular section was without vibrato and full of pathos and tragedy. The players were not afraid of the silences and quiet within the piece, and the rather twisted Allegretto middle movement was full of musical effect.

Beethoven's String Quartet in F Major, Opus 59, No. 1 may not seem to have any Russian connection by its name, but it is in fact one of the "Razumovsky" quartets, dedicated to the Russian ambassador of Beethoven's time. The opening Allegro movement was melodic and full of the sforzandos which characterize Beethoven's music, and the quartet once again showed its strength of mellifluous playing between paired instruments. In the second movement, the interplay among the two violins and the viola could have been one instrument, their tone was so similar and the music flowed from instrument to instrument. This quartet excels at playing almost imperceptibly, thereby drawing the audience into their musical scope as they huddle together. A lively Russian theme marked the last movement as the quartet closed the concert.

Of all the chamber ensembles which appeared on the Summer Concert Series this year, this ensemble may be the youngest - founded in 1999. Making a career as a chamber ensemble artist is a tough road these days, but the Summer Series brought to Princeton a number of ensembles which demonstrated their potential for durability in the performance world and hopefully long concert lives.


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