The Ancora String Quartet finished its season with a concert on June 12, in its home at the First Unitarian Society. The program consisted of two nicely contrasted works, by composers whose music in this idiom is not nearly enough appreciated by the public.
The string quartets of Felix Mendelssohn seem to win more attention in recordings than in live performances. There are seven of them, six published. While they may not constitute the most important part of the composer's large output, they offer significant insights into his musical personality, especially in his ability to achieve seeming spontaneity within thorough craftsmanship.
The Quartet in E-flat, Op. 12, is conventionally reckoned as No. 1, though reflecting order of publication, not of composition (it's really his Third). Composed in 1829, when Mendelssohn was 20, it is an expansive four-movement work that shows him in complete command of Classical forms. At the same time, it is full of his individuality, nowhere more so than in its second movement, a "Canzonetta" in place of a scherzo: within its frame of songlike delicacy is a trio section in which Mendelssohn burst into that style of woodland elfishness he made all his own in his "Midsummer Night's Dream" music.
By contrast with Mendelssohnian delicacy and balance, Antonin Dvorák's idiom is one of lusty earthiness, teaming with ebullient imagination, ideas tumbling out one after another. For too many listeners, Dvorák's only string quartet is the so-called American one, from his days in the U.S. in the early 1890s -- just as his only orchestral work would seem for many to be his Ninth, "New World" Symphony. Such blindered (or muffled) perspective ignores the fact that Dvorák was not only a fabulous and highly productive orchestral composer, but one of the supreme masters of chamber music, ranking with Beethoven and Schubert. Especially after his American sojourn, Dvorák returned home for an astounding outpouring of masterpieces in his final years, including the great Cello Concerto, the five fabulous symphonic poems, and two more string quartets, his Op. 105 and 106.
It was the Op. 106 in G major that the Ancora Quartet offered, in its latest gift to Madison of music the community really ought to hear. And in both works, the four players responded to the different timbres and flavors with superlative artistry. There is no question that this quartet is better than ever these days, with greater assurance of ensemble and greater unity of sound. Their magnificent rendition of Beethoven's great Op. 132 Quartet weeks back at a Chazen concert proclaimed their ascension to new heights, and the performances of this concert's two works fully confirmed such impressions.
The Ancora Quartet has clearly become one of our great community treasures.