Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts Continues Series with String Quartet
By Nancy Plum
It is difficult to get audiences indoors on a summer afternoon, but Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts was able to entice a good crowd into Richardson Auditorium this past weekend. For the second performance of the 2022 season, the Chamber Concerts series presented the Diderot String Quartet, a 10-year-old ensemble with a well-established commitment to historical performance. Violinists Johanna Novom and Adriane Post, violist Kyle Miller, and cellist Paul Dwyer came to Richardson Sunday afternoon to present eight of Johann Sebastian Bach’s most complex fugal compositions and an elegant string quartet by Felix Mendelssohn on period instruments.
J.S. Bach’s The Art of the Fugue was comprised of 14 canons based on a single short theme. Bach subjected this melodic fragment to a combination of contrapuntal treatments, including setting the theme backwards, upside-down, and in varying speeds. The Diderot String Quartet performed eight of these settings, each showing a different side of Bach’s compositional genius.
Although likely conceived for harpsichord, The Art of the Fugue has been adapted well to various combinations of instruments. “Contrapunctus I” opened with second violinist Adriane Post presenting the theme, followed by all instruments in fugal fashion. The Quartet’s period instruments provided a more understated and refined sound than modern instruments might have, requiring the audience to listen harder to the intimate ensemble sound. Throughout the Bach work, the Diderot Quartet paid a great deal of attention to dynamics, swelling and decreasing the sound together.
Each “Contrapunctus” treated the theme in an altered way, often opening with a different instrument and pairing the strings in varied combinations of color. Violist Miller and cellist Dwyer were particularly well matched in sound, and violinists Post and Novom often provided extended passages of well-tuned intervals. The eight short movements became more complex as the work went on, with faster-moving lines for the players and dotted rhythms with varying degrees of Baroque “swing.” Dwyer played melodic sequences in “Contrapunctus III” sensitively, with the closing movement requiring expert technical facility from all the instrumentalists.
Mendelssohn lived a century after Bach, but the two were certainly connected; Mendelssohn was particularly devoted to the Baroque composer and revived many of his works which had fallen into obscurity. Mendelssohn’s 1827 String Quartet No. 2 in A minor may also have been inspired by the composer’s study of the quartets of Beethoven, as well as his own gift for melodic writing. Composed when Mendelssohn was only 18, this four-movement work was a memento to the composer’s love for an unidentified girl and incorporated a melodic fragment from one of his love songs. Despite its youthful origins, this Quartet included complex and advanced musical devices well handled by the Diderot players.
The Diderot Quartet continued their historically-informed performance approach in the Mendelssohn work, switching to longer bows and maintaining the same intimate ensemble sound. Following a regal introduction to the first movement, the Diderot musicians played phrase repetitions gently, and throughout the work continued the unison dynamic swells and decreases which had marked the Bach fugues. Cellist Dwyer demonstrated the elegant upper register of his instrument, and although not as much in a continuo role in this work, provided a solid foundation to the instrumental palette.
The second movement “Adagio” showed Mendelssohn’s musical tribute to love most clearly, and the Diderot Quartet played the church-like opening and closing passages smoothly and reverently. The third movement was also played in a song-like manner, followed by an abrupt opening to the closing movement which is plainly borrowed from Beethoven. The Quartet played the final “Presto” with exact timing and clean unison racing lines, bringing out sforzandi well. With the audience in rapt attention, the Diderot String Quartet maintained Mendelssohn’s passion and longing to the final measures, showing the ensemble’s collaboration, historical meticulousness and technical facility.
Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts will present its next performance on Friday, July 8 at 7:30 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium, featuring the Manhattan Chamber Players performing music of Mozart, von Dohnányi, and Schumann. Tickets are free and are available one week before the performance at tickets.princeton.edu.