If you were wondering where about 50 folks who weren’t watching the Packers engage the Bears for a trip to the Super Bowl on Sunday afternoon, I found them. We were sparsely scattered among the 500 or so inviting seats at the Stoughton Opera House, watching the Pro Arte Quartet perform like the perennial champions they are.
In opening with one of the most appealing of the early Beethoven string quartets, the Op. 18, No. 5, the PAQ wasted not a moment in testing their vaunted sense of ensemble and precision. I recalled meeting the famed Guarneri Quartet back in the mic-1970s, and asking one of them what were the hardest quartets to tackle — the intensely personal late quartets of Beethoven? No, came the reply, the early ones of Beethoven, because of the combination of individual difficulty combined with the Classical transparency required — either that or Mozart.
Beethoven only occasionally hints in this work at what is to come when he fully found his unique, revolutionary voice, and the Pro Arte opted to emphasize the Classical roots of the young Beethoven. It was in the great theme and variations of the third movement that the greatest outburst came, that moment late in the proceedings where the collective sound just seems to burst forth, with the first violinist’s trills lighting up the entire sequence.
The acoustic of the Stoughton locale provided even a greater test than Mills Hall had when I heard the group in September, and even in the finale of the Beethoven, where a light, precise touch is of the essence, the PAQ delivered with aplomb. Happy to report as well that violist Sally Chisholm, in her first performance since hip replacement surgery, might not have bounced in her seat as much as her wont, but has lost nothing of the rich tone and expressiveness she brings to the ensemble’s middle core of sound.
A minor but memorable treat was had just before intermission, with three of the “Novelettes” of Glazunov. Written in 1886 by the 21-year old composer, long before tsars gave way to a new repression, the opening “Alla Spagnola” was propelled by cellist Parry Karp’s urgent pizzicato, while Chisholm suffused the “Interludium” with a wordless melody of real poignancy. The “Valse” lilted effortlessly.
Having given Beethoven the Classical approach, generally speaking, the Pro Arte made a strong case for Mozart’s K. 428 quartet looking forward to 19th-century romanticism. The work opens with an eerie half-melody delivered in unison, and the PAQ seemed to draw upon it as the basis for the dramatic tension that underlies the entire movement. In the Andante con moto, the Pro Arte appeared to favor a larger loud dynamic than had been the case with Beethoven, to great effect.
The Menuetto reiterated first violinist’s David Perry’s uncanny ability to lead subtly nuanced differences of timing in repeated motifs. Of course, the full tribute goes to all four players, for meticulous rehearsing and for reaching that rarified level that only comes from fifteen years or so of playing together. Perry had the greatest technical workout in the finale, but it would be remiss not to give credit to second violinist Suzanne Beia’s essential contributions throughout the afternoon.
The next time the Pro Arte Quartet is scheduled to play, do yourself a favor: treat it like the Super Bowl of string quartet playing. Bookies would always favor them to “cover the spread,” no matter who they’re playing…