After hearing Anton Webern's Five Pieces for String Quartet at Kirkland House on Tuesday, I had a hard time understanding why Vienna was scandalized when it first heard this work in 1913. For these five short movements have a delicate and economic intensity, and when played by Robert Koff and John Austin, violins, Carey McIntosh, viola, and Lawrence Lesser, 'cello, they moved the large audience by their probing, occasionally erupting introspection.
Written at the end of Schoenberg's tutelage of Webern in 1909, the work is more approachable than his later 12-tone compositions, for it is only occasional contrapuntal and moves with a melodic continuity quite different from the strict counterpoint he adopted later. Continual variation of melodic fragments creates in each movement a concise, poignant compression, and the absence of tonality gives his chromaticism an ethereal unworldliness. Pulling free of the mundane world with several searing dissonances, Webern uses quavers, harmonics and undulating dynamics to create a mood of cerie, tortured contemplation.
Webern's resourcefulness with his instruments makes great demands upon performers, and this quarter surmounted these difficulties in remarkable fashion. Emphasizing the restraint and delicacy of Webern's ponderings, they proceeded quietly and somberly in the second, fourth and fifth movements, but exploded with appropriate force in the first and third. The group handled the bowing and quavers assuredly and the harmonics in the first violin were steady and precise. Despite an occasionally weak viola, they displayed good tone and coordinated well the sparse harmonies and fragmented melodies.
Perhaps the only quality missing was a sense of strain, for their quiet and restrained tone sometimes lacked the introspective torture of Webern's chromatic wanderings. But this complaint is a matter of interpretation; indeed, the brilliance of the performance lay partly in the consistency of their reading.
Quartets by Schubert and Haydn rounded out the program. The Schubert work, a posthumous publication in G minor, is an aggressive and sometimes rowdy piece; the group was sensitive to its contrasts and usually maintained good balance. The weakest moments of the evening came in the Haydn quartet (Op. 77, No. 2), where alower tempos brought rather tentative playing and weaker tone. The modern work was both the best performed and most interesting work of the concert.