The Pro Arte Quartet has long been one of the pillars of our musical life, not only on the UW campus, but for Madison in general. Warming up for its centennial celebration in 2011-12, the quartet launched the current season on Saturday evening in the Humanities Building's Mills Hall.
The program, consisting of three works, was rich and rewarding. And it showed the group up to its own best standards of technical and stylistic confidence.
I found that the program also set me to thinking anew about how readily we impose labels on composers. Consider Mozart, whose Quartet in E-flat, K. 428, opened the concert. Yes, as we know, he is the quintessential representative of the 18th-century Classical idiom. Yet there are those who find in a lot of his music anticipations of 19th-century Romanticism to come. One could find evidence for that argument in this work, especially in its first two movements; and dare we hear tiny predictions of Beethoven in the finale?
So might we conclude that Mozart was a proto-Romantic? The Pro Arte players apparently chose not to attempt any case pro or con on such matters. They let the music speak for itself, in a performance of crisp precision but also warmth and affection.
With the program's second work, we were faced with a certified Romantic in Robert Schumann, whose A-major Quartet, the third of the Op. 41 threesome, is considered by some his masterpiece in this genre. No denying its display of typical Romantic yearning and restless, even explosive anxiety. Yet, here was this boldly original Romantic grappling with traditional Classical forms and structures. The theme-with-variations second movement, and especially the finale, with its fusion of rondo and scherzo, showed him trying to expand their capacities, yet also respecting them.
The last work was Dvo?ák's Quartet in D minor, Op. 34, his ninth work in the form and perhaps the first fully mature one of his eventual total of 14. We too rarely hear any of these works in public performance (save perhaps for his overplayed "American" quartet). But, however known for a select few popular pieces, the prodigiously productive Dvo?ák is really one of the most grossly undervalued of great composers. In particular, I have long held him the greatest composer in string-quartet form after Schubert. (Let's not talk about Brahms at all!) So it is particularly to the Pro Arte's credit that they allow us to experience this one.
In some ways, it is a little more respectful of Classical structures than Schumann's essay, even within a sometimes thick and notably earthy style. But what particularly characterizes Dvo?ák's musical personality is his spontaneous nationalism, prompting him to incorporate elements of Czech folk dance idioms.
As with the Schumann work, so with Dvo?ák's, our players dug into this music with enthusiasm and full-blooded tone.
The Pro Arte Quartet is thus off to a strong start into the season ahead. Those who missed the evening concert can catch at least two of its contents (Schumann and Dvo?ák) in a rerun on Sunday, Sept. 26 at 12:30 p.m., at the Chazen Museum on the UW campus.