The Ancora String Quartet concert on Saturday night at the First Unitarian Society, the first of the 2012-13 season, was a splendid survey of 19th century classical landmarks. The group explored the first half of the century via works by Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schumann.
First on the program was Beethoven's Quartet in A major, No. 5, from the opus 18 set published in 1801. In this early-career work, he draws heavily on the styles of his predecessors Haydn and Mozart. But the originality of a new, young titan shines through. Ancora's players make a point of playing at least one Beethoven quartet each season. They conveyed their commitment to his striking music with sharply etched textures and bold energy.
Next was a rare public performance of selections from Mendelssohn's 12 Fugues for String Quartet. Mendelssohn composed this set in 1821, when he was just 13 years old. Ancora played fugues 2, 3, 8 and 9 from a new but not-yet-published critical edition. These pieces are short and highly concentrated contrapuntal studies, set down as the precocious youngster worked to master his trade. They were probably never meant for performance, but they are fascinating windows into Mendelssohn's development as a student, at a time he was already composing substantial, even monumental, works for strings. The playing of these busy abstractions was sometimes a little rough, though I appreciated first violinist Leanne Kelso League's experiments with vibratoless playing, which added a touch of Baroque sound.
To conclude the evening, Ancora performed the first of Schumann's three opus 41 string quartets. Composed in 1842, this work is an example of full-blown early Romanticism. Schumann's quartets are grounded in confident counterpoint and framed in classic 18th-century form and structure. But Schumann was not really interested in testing musical ideas or pursuing lofty lyricism so much as conveying emotion, in nervous and even high-strung Romantic spirit. This is a passionate work indeed, and Ancora's players were splendidly caught up in its intensity.
This program was well designed and beautifully executed. Ancora is on a truly exciting ride that shouldn't be missed.