On Sunday, October 12, 2014, the Calder Quartet appeared at Le Petit Trianon in San Jose in yet another collaborative program with pianist Anne-Marie McDermott and violinist Geoff Nuttall. Following their Bartok program in San Francisco just days before, here they offered a very different menu of Mozart and late 19th century French composers Ravel and Chausson. The String Quartet by Ravel was the only standard quartet on the concert. The other two works were written as concertos for solo instruments.
Pianist McDermott was a sensation in Mozart’s Concerto No. 13, K.415, one of three she has recorded with the Calder. Composed at a happy time in Mozart’s early life it has an optimistic exuberance that fits McDermott well. Why a concerto on a chamber music program? It appears that Mozart composed three such works that he enjoyed performing with string quartet, though he also provided optional wind parts at the request of his publisher. This is how it is usually performed today, with full string sections, or multiple string quartets.
The Calder was seated in front of the piano, closer to the audience, so that their sound was clearly heard. Soloist and quartet handled balance superbly, and, with the help of the outstanding acoustics of the Trianon, every note was heard with just the right resonance.
In contrast to the symphony orchestra circuit, where a noted soloist is engaged to appear with the local orchestra for two rehearsals and two or three performances, this ensemble has performed the work multiple times including for recording. The benefit to this audience was that we were treated to a performance where all the edges are polished. And since they are so comfortable on stage together, they have the ability to take expressive leave of the metronome, which we call rubato. Whether one agrees musically or not, they execute such moments with utmost grace. And they make it look so easy!
The lively rondo of the last movement has all the characteristics of a Mozart opera, from playful to dark drama. McDermott and the Calder seemed to enjoy creating greatly contrasting moods as the music shifts from major to minor and back again.
Maurice Ravel’s only String Quartet is another work recorded by the Calder. The work was composed in 1903, so Ravel is still a late 19th century composer, with only a big toe in the 20th. The work clearly reflects the French tradition of the late Romantic period with its search for a more diverse palette of sounds.
The Calder delivered the ravishing first movement of the Ravel with a singular purpose. Not only do they play with rhythmic precision, but also the delicate expressive gestures were played as one person. This was most striking in the third movement, where the deep drama of the music requires shifting moods. The rhythmic vitality of the finale was infectious. A treasured moment was the perfect trill of four players in precise synchronism, executed flawlessly.
The final work, Concerto for Violin, Piano String Quartet by Ernest Chausson, dates from 1891, and contains all the fire and thunder the Romantic era can bring. It might be the only work in its genre, though there are many concertos for violin and piano with full orchestra.
The piano begins the work with the first thunderbolt in the form of a three-note motive, which carries through the movement at all times. With the Calder seated as before, in front of the piano, violinist Nuttall performed standing within good communication distance of the pianist. As in the earlier performances of the evening, the ensemble understood how to use the acoustics of the Trianon to great advantage. They can sound gargantuan without being heavy or harsh. Quiet and tender moments were welcome and few between, but always played with attention to detail of balance and the flow of the music.
The work contains no cadenzas in the traditional sense when there is a pause in the action while the soloist performs dazzling feats on themes heard earlier. Instead, there were extended passages of the soloists alone but always within the unfolding of the music. These transitions were handled seamlessly. What stood out in this work as in the entire concert was the impassioned playing of everyone in the ensemble.