Friends of Chamber Music

The Petersen Quartet: Haydn, Grieg, and Beethoven

February 15: The Vancouver Playhouse

One can experience a work or performance that is so strong that one's faith in that genre's canon is shaken, or at least one's own take on it. There are great string quartets that are reliably as good as good can get--Julliard, Arditti, Italian, etc.--and many other working ensembles ranging anywhere from poor to very good. Part of the fun of a lesser-known quartet is judging the playing. But when that ensemble clearly, explicitly belongs in the stratosphere of the greats, listeners can come away stunned, unprepared for what they heard.

That was the case this evening with The Petersen Quartet who left listeners slightly high. The Quartet was founded in 1979 at the Hanns Eisler Musikhochschule in former East Berlin, an inspired, no-nonsense music school. They began the evening with Josef Haydn's String Quartet in G Major, Op. 1, no. 4. This work was a string quartet prototype from 1759, an idea allowing Baron Fürnberg, an amateur cellist, to play with friends.

The string quartet genre did not exist until Haydn mastered the idiom in 1791, when his Opus 33 quartets appeared. The prototypes were "Divertimenti", poised but informal, and laced with not-so-difficult passages for showing off. The Peterson Quartet used this wonderful trifle to give a lesson on balance and contrast. Their musical dialogue was not familial but noble, with an immediacy that was never rushed and always in total self-possession of tone. If the players were less accomplished, this means of attack would have been cold and stodgy. But the vitality and personality of each musician was too strong for any utterance to be less than electric. The first violin, a Gagliano from 1799, was sweet and edgy, and the second violin, a Grancino from 1693, was mellow and warm. All the instruments were as distinctive as the players. The crowd was left breathless.

The ensemble's tour de force continued with Edvard Grieg's 1890 String Quartet in F Major, which was published after the composer's death in 1907. He was unable to finish this quartet due to depression, and its two completed movements reflected a nationalist, Norwegian aesthetic. In string quartet language, this translated into a pastiche indicative of Mozart, Debussy and others. The Petersen Quartet showcased their ability to capture each transition and contrasting section to marvelous effect. The result was an infectious roller coaster of Classicism, Art Nouveau, and Expressionism with a single cohesive dramatic contour.

The evening's second half was taken up with Ludwig van Beethoven's String Quartet in E minor, Op. 59, no. 2. This "Rasoumovsky" quartet, from 1806, is one of the most exciting and difficult works in the quartet repertoire.

Performing it is a bold statement unto itself, but The Petersen Quartet was the great ensemble many listeners had not heard before. Their poise buckled just a bit as their excitement propelled them through this masterpiece, revealing the group's humanity in an ecstatic state, ennobling them even further. They were treated to well-deserved standing ovation. This concert series, produced by Friends of Chamber Music, has been one of unflagging excellence and should be attended by everyone.-- John Keillor