In its second concert of the season, Chamber Music Society of Louisville presented the Johannes String Quartet on Sunday to a modestly-filled crowd at Comstock Hall. Typical of the ensembles CMS Louisville books, each player of Johannes is highly skilled with an impressive list of credentials: Soovin Kim, the first American to with the prestigious Paganini Violin Competition; Jessica Lee, winner of a Concert Artists Guild Competition; C.J. Chang, principal violist of the Philadelphia Orchestra; and Peter Stumpf, former principal cellist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and currently on faculty at Indiana University Bloomington.
In the Mendelssohn family, siblings Felix and Fanny were the most musical and the closest. She died in May of 1847 at the age of 43, and her brother, overcome with anguish, churned out a string quartet subtitled “Requiem for Fanny.” Felix would die just two months later at the age of 38. This F minor quartet opened the Johannes String Quartet’s darkly-hued program. It’s frenetic first and second movements were played ferociously. An unanswered question leads into a loving third movement, which in turn gives way to more grief and anger. This isn’t music that seeks understanding or comfort. Yesterday’s performance was memorable for emoting every note from the page. First violinist Kim, full of presence and adrenaline, lost some precision in a few highly exposed moments. But this is not a warm up quartet or an icebreaker—it’s difficult technically and emotionally. We are experiencing grief and mourning privately with Felix.
Bela Bartok’s final string quartet dwells in a similarly grim place, but with less emotion. His sixth quartet is cold and calculated, each movement opening with a theme marked “mesto” (mesto is Italian for “sad”). These dark times are no place for revelry, but Bartok manages to liven things up, if through a clenched jaw, writing for the quartet as an Hungarian folk band in the second and third movements. The Johannes quartet showed us their understanding of every detail in this complex music, and how gritty their fine instruments can sound.
Combined with the drowsy, rainy afternoon, we all needed a heavy dose of vitamin D after the first half. Thankfully, the Johannes String Quartet chose a lighter work from their namesake. What Brahms thought was inconsequential in his catalog—and perhaps it isn’t his most important contribution—was enjoyable. He wants to show us little trinkets here and there, rather than grand gestures. The third movement featured the viola, with Chang coaxing a humanized, velvety voice, lilting and singing above undulating pulses. Johannes String Quartet shows its strength in this highly emotive music. Their sound yesterday afternoon was full and rich, perfect for Brahms. According to their website, the group is currently working recording the complete quartets of Brahms, which should be a welcome addition to the catalog.
Finally, praises to Chamber Music Society of Louisville, capable of programming a season that is on par with major presenters in Chicago or New York—at a fraction of the ticket price and in the best venue in town. The next Chamber Music Society of Louisville concert is at 3 p.m. Feb. 15 , again at Comstock Concert Hall, with the Amernet String Quartet and soprano Lauren Skuce Gross.
Daniel Gilliam is the program director for WFPL sister station Classical 90.5 WUOL.