Cuarteto evokes fantasy in Lewis work

April 11, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

An indication of the strength of Robert Hall Lewis' String Quartet No. 4 ("Seven Environments") is that its appearance yesterday on a program that included masterpieces by Bartok and Villa-Lobos did not bring any sense of diminishment. The string quartet received its world premiere performance from the Cuarteto Latinoamericano at the Baltimore Museum of Art in a series offered by the Chamber Music Society of Baltimore, of which the composer is the long-time music director.

There were not many surprises about this quartet -- its subtitle, "Seven Environments," takes its name from the titles of its seven movements. As in any of Lewis' more successful works, one expected a strong rhythmic sense, inventive textures, interesting instrumental techniques, a powerful wit and a sense of architecture in which few, if any, notes were wasted. What was gratifying, however, was the sense that the composer has taken these familiar characteristics to a higher level. In the first movement ("Evening Images"), for example, the rustling motives in the violins were played with a bouncing bow technique that created sounds with a scurrying character that endowed the movement with an especially rich sense of fantasy.

The quartet's emotional center might have been the fifth movement ("Aura of Reminiscence"), in which the first violin plays material echoed offstage by the second. This technique -- which is occasionally used in orchestral music with brass instruments -- was used with music that suggested something sweetly nostalgic in a central European vein.

That sense of the poetry of lost time was much enhanced by the final movement ("Distant Bells") in which the composer picks up the rustling motives from the first movement, this time in the lower instruments, and introduces violin harmonics in the highest register. Soon all four instruments are producing high, quiet harmonics at a slow tempo that suggest the ticking sounds one might hear in a museum dedicated to the history of time. The string quartet's last moment, in which the music thins out to a single player, was a moving, superbly judged final gesture.

Lewis' quartet received a fine performance from the quartet -- violinists Aron and Saul Bitran, violist Saul Bitran and cellist Alvaro Bitran -- which played it with the virtuosity and fantasy it required. In other works on the program, the Cuarteto Latinoamericano played with mixed results. In Villa-Lobos' String Quartet No. 5 and Bartok's String Quartet No. 3, there was a good deal of flawed intonation and missed notes (particularly from the first violinist). But in the second half of the program, starting with the Lewis quartet and continuing in superb performances of Silvestre Revueltas' lyrical String Quartet No. 4 and Astor Piazzolla's delightful "Four for Tango," the ensemble hit an assured stride.

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