Mark Gresham | 06 MAR 2019
Morning thunderstorms followed by ongoing showers did not dampen spirits at thos past Sunday afternoon’s concert by the Peachtree String Quartet – violinists Sissi Yuqing Zhang and Christopher Pulgram, violist Yang Yoon Kim and cellist Charae Krueger. Boasting an all-Czech program of music by Suk, Janáček and Dvořák, it was the group’s final performance of the 2018-19 season, held in their home venue at Garden Hills Recreation Center.
The group opened with a relatively short but warm and lovely piece, Ballad for String Quartet in D minor by Josef Suk. It was written when Suk was only 16 years old and studying at the Prague Conservatory with Antonín Dvořák.
Far more challenging was the piece that followed, the String Quartet No. 1 of Leos Janáček. Subtitled “Kreutzer Sonata,” it was inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s novella, The Kreutzer Sonata, which was in turn inspired by Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9, familiarly known as the “Kreutzer Sonata.”
In Tolstoy’s story, in a deep first-person examination of jealousy and rage, the narrator, Pozdyshev, relates the events of his deteriorating marriage leading up to killing his wife, a amateur pianist, whom he believed he had caught in an adulterous relationship with a male violinist — with whom she played Beethoven’s “Kreutzer Sonata,” of course.
Janáček’s mostly dark, brooding music is punctuated by angry outbursts. The first movement sets the work’s melancholic tone and is followed by a grim scherzo. A slow theme from the opening movement of Beethoven’s “Kreutzer Sonata” is quoted as if heard in the mind of the obsessively jealous Pozdyshev. The fourth movement brought the work to its dire conclusion, reprising materials from the first movement plus a doleful tune in the first violin.
Much more familiar to the audience was Dvořák’s String Quartet No. 12, Op. 96, one of the most popular works of string quartet repertoire. It acquired the moniker “American” because the composer wrote it while in the United States, specifically while vacationing in the small-town Czech community of Spillville, Iowa. The visit to Spillville was for Dvořák both a respite from New York and a friendly, comforting reminder of his native land, language and culture.
On its surface it may seem a much simpler work than Janáček’s, but is no less sophisticated. It marked a turning point in Dvořák’s chamber music where he finally achieved a balance between melodic invention and clarity of structure that he had long sought. He did not dub it “American” himself though he did refer to it as “the second composition written in America” after his Symphony No. 9, but it has worn the nickname well.
All three works were given excellent, full-bodied realizations by Peachtree String Quartet, but the wet weather posed its own problem for the group. High humidity, but specially large swings in humidity, can be treacherous for these instruments. They are made of wood, an organic material that swells and contracts with changes in humidity levels, placing a lot of stress on the instruments and altering their sound, thus the control which musicians have over that sound. That applies to the wood in classical guitars and pianos as much as it does a string quartet. Add the volatility of temperatures, and you have a increased impact. Neither was ideal on Sunday, especially given the intentional “woodland cabin” character of the Garden Hills building in which they regularly play. Yet the PSQ musicians seemed to overcome that challenge to achieve a well-played, engaging performance. ■