Muir Quartet stirs up a storm with 'Death and the Maiden'

November 09, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

There must be some poor string quartets on the concert circuit, but music critcs rarely hear them. The level of string playing nowadays -- partly as a result of the chamber music boom of the 1970s -- is so high that one rarely listens to a quartet that fails to score high marks in technique, intonation and ensemble.

But it's rarer still to hear quartet performances as fine as those last night in Shriver Hall by the Muir Quartet -- four superb players (violinists Peter Zazofsky and Bayla Keyes, violist Steven Ansell and cellist Michael Reynolds) who are all in their late 30s and who contribute refreshingly different musical personalities to the ensemble.

Because of its emotional demands, Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" Quartet, which closed the concert, can be an exhausting piece to play.

I have never heard it played better.

The Muirs played the opening fanfares fearlessly. Zazofsky is one of the finest first violinists in the business, but the three other players were just as impressive.

At the end of the first movement, the heart-stoppingly difficult drop of the three inner voices to a pianissimo was gauged perfectly, and the rest of the quartet was just as fine.

The players began the slow movement -- the one that gives the quartet its title because it is a series of variations on the composer's song, "Death and the Maiden" -- rather coolly.

They turned up the emotional thermostat bit by bit, letting the line of the piece toll like a funeral bell.

The lightning quick scherzo flew by without a hitch, and the final movement displayed some astonishing playing. Despite the unflagging rhythmic impetus, none of the important little melodic details were submerged, and the performance built to an impressive climax.

In the prestissimo coda, the four players -- high in their registers and firing loudly away -- threw caution to the winds -- nearly levitating the auditorium.

The rest of the splendid concert included a reading of Dvorak's Quartet in A-flat (opus 105) that was affectionately detailed and paced so intelligently that one never wanted it to end; performances of Webern's aphoristic Six Bagatelles played with such conviction and beauty of tone that their difficulties dissolved; and, as an encore, the canzonetta from Mendelssohn's Quartet in E-flat (opus 12), played with lightness of touch and delicacy of feeling.

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