July 22, 2020

Princeton Summer Chamber Concerts Continues With Two Notable String Quartet Ensembles

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Summer Chamber Concerts continued its series of “Chamber Music Wednesdays” this past week with a performance shared by the Argus and Craft string quartets of a notable chamber work by an underrated woman composer.

Based in New York City, the Argus Quartet is dedicated to encouraging the joys of human connection, community, and discovery by bringing wide-ranging repertoire to life. Since its founding in 2013, the ensemble has collaborated with a number of contemporary composers and has earned a number of awards and commissions nationwide. The Boston-based Craft Quartet has made its reputation pairing undiscovered works from the past with masterpieces from our time. In this era of focus on music of women composers, it was fitting that these two chambers shared performance responsibilities in presenting a work of the early 19th-century composer Fanny Mendelssohn, whose works were often overshadowed by those of her more renowned brother Felix. 

Fanny Mendelssohn composed an astounding amount of music in her short life of 42 years (she died of a stroke less than six months before Felix died in a similar manner). Her repertory numbers more than 450 pieces, including 250 lieder — a popular genre of the early 19th century and one in which Fanny’s works were often attributed to her brother. The battle to be a woman composer at this time was such that Fanny’s father wrote to her that while music may be the profession of her brother, for Fanny, it “can and must be only an ornament.” Fanny and Felix shared not the sibling rivalry usually found in families but a sibling artistry — influencing each other’s works and supporting each other’s careers. The truly extensive repertory of this lesser-known composer has been coming more to light in recent decades, and Princeton Summer Chamber Concerts’ “Chamber Music Wednesdays” presentation last week featured the Argus and Craft quartets playing Fanny Mendelssohn’s 1834 String Quartet in E-flat Major

Fanny Mendelssohn’s String Quartet was her sole work in that genre, with the four movements rooted in the musical traditions of not only her brother but also the towering Ludwig van Beethoven. Summer Chamber Concerts divided this performance between the Argus and Craft quartets, with the Argus ensemble playing movements 1 and 3 and the Craft Quartet performing movements 2 and 4. Princeton University musicologist and Dean of Faculty Scott Burnham provided historical background to the piece as an introduction, with interesting musical examples and comparisons to the works of Felix Mendelssohn and Beethoven which the audience may not have realized. 

Playing from a small wood-paneled space which looked suitable for recording, the Argus Quartet played the first and third movements with precision and clarity, showing the work’s Classical roots. The first movement was a meditative introduction to the entire Quartet, with a dark and contemplative nature well punctuated by pizzicato playing from cellist Joann Whang. Violinists Clara Kim and Giancarlo Latta played with elegance, with Kim demonstrating particular sensitivity in the first movement “Adagio.” Violist Maren Rothfritz played with an effective edge to the viola sound, with all players building the intensity of repetitive passages well in the third movement “Romanze.” 

Movements 2 and 4 were presented by the Craft Quartet from an archived performance from the Rivers School Conservatory in Weston, Massachusetts. Violinists Colleen Brannen and Amy Sims, violist Amelia Hollander Ames, and cellist Velleda Miragias have performed Fanny Mendelssohn’s Quartet a number of times throughout the Boston area, and their comfort with the piece was evident. The “Scherzo” of movement 2 was agitated yet under control, and the ensemble played with an overall fresh and young sound. Violist Hollander Ames effectively led the fugal passages of the second movement and the ensemble brought out well the dynamic contrasts of the piece. The final “Allegro” movement was quick-moving, energetic and joyful, with first violinist Brannen playing a decisive melodic theme emphatically as the work came to a swirling close. 

As with all online performances which have been taking place over the past four months, the results are only as good as the technology.  There were a few problems getting into the live stream, but these Summer Chamber Concerts performances are available for later access on the Chamber Concerts website. Technology aside, Wednesday night’s performance of Fanny Mendelssohn’s String Quartet was a pleasant and refreshing way to spend a summer evening.