Mark Gresham | 20 JUL 2023
Our final visit to this year’s Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival was for Monday’s concert by the American String Quartet, billed as celebrating their 50th anniversary, performed at the Highlands Performing Arts Center, just one stop in the Quartet’s extended summer tour.
The group opened with Franz Schubert’s String Quartet No. 13 in A minor, D 804, Op. 29, also known as the Rosamunde Quartet. The nickname “Rosamunde” comes from the second movement, based on a theme from the composer’s incidental music for Rosamunde, a play by Helmina von Chézy, which is nowhere near as well-remembered as Schubert’s music. It was the only one of Schubert’s string quartets published during his short lifetime.
Although not performed as frequently as the String Quartet No. 14 (“Death and the Maiden”), this performance by the American String Quartet reconfirmed Sthe “Rosamunde Quartet” as a genuine treat among Schubert’s final chamber works.
Pizzicato by Vivian Fung is a brief composition for a string quartet in which the musicians never use their bows. As the title implies, the primary auditory effect is produced by plucked strings, with some additional elements, such as tapping the bodies of the instruments, introduced later in the work. Influences from Chinese plucked instruments such as the pipa and qin are evident, as well as the lively rhythms of Indonesian gamelan.
During Fung’s tenure as an associate artist at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, in 2001, Pizzicato received a first reading by the American String Quartet. Fung would later incorporate Pizzicato into her String Quartet No. 1 as its third movement.
Nevertheless, the composer approves of performing Pizzicato as a standalone piece, as in this concert, where it proved a delightful change of pace between the Schubert quartet and the Beethoven quartet to come.
Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 16 in F major, Op. 135, was the last major work he completed, and while it is the shortest of his late quartets, the scale is not one of smallness but conciseness. The finale, with its famous inscription, “The difficult decision,” generally arouses the most excited speculation about the extra-musical scripted dialog allied to its two main motives: “Must it be?” “It must be.” But the work as a whole is what earns it a unique place among Beethoven’s final quartets.
Although composed during a difficult time in Beethoven’s life, the Quartet is congenial work that, in some ways, hearkens to his Op. 18 quartets. But no: rather than return to old conventions, Op. 135 is a distillation of Beethoven’s robust, youthful vigor from the perspective of an old master.
Unsurprisingly, the cumulative experience of the American String Quartet’s members likewise brought forth a meaningfully insightful and mature performance of Beethoven’s Op. 135, as they did with the Schubert. The concert was a very satisfying experience. The ASQ repeated the program on Tuesday in nearby Cashiers, North Carolina.
The American String Quartet continues its 50th Anniversary summer tour, performing tonight at the Lancaster International Piano Festival in Lancaster, Pennsylvania; on Saturday, July 29, at the Hunter International Music Festival in Hunter, New York; and again on Sunday, July 30, at Music Mountian Summer Festival in Falls Village, Connecticut. ■
The Highlands-Cashers Chamber Music Festival continues through August 9.
- American String Quartet: americanstringquartet.com
- Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival: h-cmusicfestival.org