Monday, April 23, 2012

The Cypress Quartet: Another Return to Central PA

When I first heard the Cypress String Quartet, they had joined Awadagin Pratt for the first of the Next Generation Festival concerts which Ellen Hughes organized through WITF back in the '90s. In addition to the Brahms Piano Quintet which closed the program held at the Harrisburg Area Community College's Rose Lehrman Center, the Cypress played Beethoven's Quartet in A Minor, Op.132, the one with the famous (and, for many, infamously long) slow movement subtitled "Heilige Dankgesang" (The Holy Song of Thanksgiving) written after the composer had recuperated from an illness. What amazed me about their performance was how well they made it work - by that, I mean as the engaging, thoroughly compelling masterpiece we know it's supposed to be but, alas, often isn't. I had heard many performances and recordings of the piece over the years and even a well-established quartet can make Op. 132 sound boring. But that night, listening to the Cypress Quartet play it, it was easily one of the best performances of it I've ever heard and probably hasn't been bettered since.

The most amazing thing was realizing they hadn't even finished a full year playing together. This is something rare in any ensemble and usually associated with familiarity and longevity.

The good news is they've now been recording the Late Beethoven Quartets as the start of their eventually complete cycle. Considering most groups would begin with the "easier" Early Quartets before getting to the Mt. Everest of the Repertoire, it didn't strike me as odd after recalling that first performance of theirs I'd heard, that they would begin at the end.

The better news is, now celebrating 15 years together, they're coming back to Harrisburg (again) - from further Next Generation Festivals to residencies with Lebanon Valley College or the Pennsylvania Academy of Music and Market Square Concerts - to play another deeply moving, spiritual work that is also a challenge to interpret, especially in the first two lengthy movements. They'll be joined by cellist Gary Hoffman (with whom they've frequently performed the work) for Franz Schubert's String Quintet in C Major this weekend at Market Square Concerts' Whitaker Center program - Saturday at 8:00.

You can read my post about the background of this amazing work in the context of Schubert's life in this post, "And Schubert at the Close."

Here are several YouTube Clips to listen to if you're unfamiliar with the piece. It may be quite long - Robert Schumann referred to Schubert's "heavenly lengths," especially regarding another great work in C Major, his final completed symphony - so I apologize for all the breaks within movements (the old YouTube policy of 10-minute limits is not Schubert-friendly).

Here is the Harlem Quartet with cellist Carter Brey recorded at a concert held at the Library of Congress in 2008 where the quartet is playing on the house collection of Stradivarius instruments.

1st Movement (Part 1) 1st Movement (Part 2) 2nd Movement (Part 1) 2nd Movement (Part 2) 3rd Movement 4th Movement = = = = = = = =
 - Dick Strawser

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