Calder Quartet gives stellar advocacy to Hillborg work at Rockport

July 8, 2016 at 11:51 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

The Calder Quartet performed Thursday night at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival. Photo: Autumn de Wilde

The Calder Quartet performed Thursday night at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival. Photo: Autumn de Wilde

Arietta wine is unmistakable. Founded in 1996 by the winemaker families of Fritz Hatton and John Kongsgaard, the Napa Valley winery makes Bordeaux-style blends that are packaged in ways that reflect a love of fine drink and classical music. The label on the bottles, which display a manuscript of the Arietta movement from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, Op. 111, says it all.

In 2006, the Swedish composer Anders Hillborg penned the Kongsgaard Variations and dedicated them to John and Maggy Kongsgaard. Running at fourteen minutes, the piece for string quartet is based on the same Beethoven’s theme that is pasted on the wine bottles.

The Kongsgaard Variations were part of an enriching concert given by the Calder Quartet Thursday night at the Shalin Liu Performance Center as part of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival.

Hillborg’s work is stunningly beautiful. Sheets of silky string sound unfold in colorful episodes, as if the variations are in search of a theme. The Arietta itself is stretched and twisted almost beyond recognition before being heard in truncated form by the end of the piece. It then dissolves into clouds of harmonics.

The Calder Quartet brought the work to vivid life. The ensemble—comprising violinists Benjamin Jacobson and Andrew Bulbrook, violist Jonathan Moerschel, and cellist Eric Byers—stands as one of the finest and most dynamic string quartets on the scene today. The musicians play with impeccable intonation and fierce commitment to the music. But the most remarkable aspect of the quartet is their ability to blend as an ensemble. Their sound is like silky fabric that is even in all parts.

The musicians opened the Kongsgaard Variations with luminous sound. An opening chord that stretches from high violin strings to the dark depths of the cello seemed to form from empty space. As the piece progressed, the musicians swelled their phrases into lines of rapt intensity before the sound dissolved into quick crescendos and a lonely, serene chord. Silvery dissonances also dotted the texture, and Eric Byers’ cello soared above the blanket of sound. When the Arietta theme finally appeared, it glowed with soft radiance.

The opener, Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor, was equally colorful. The composer’s lone work in the medium is a fine example of shimmering textures and washes of impressionistic sonorities.

The Calder Quartet played with plush, amber tone and sensitive phrasing in the first movement. Their sound took on a slight edge in the movement’s more forceful statements, and the pizzicato phrases of the second movement were playful.

But overall this performance was a study in sensuousness. The third movement, which opens in faint gestures for the upper strings, unfolded into a long, svelte solo for first violin. Here, Benjamin Jacobson played with a tone that seemed to echo at a distance. The finale was as polished as a gem stone, with the quartet’s statements building into dense pillars or sound.

After intermission, the Calder Quartet delivered a richly textured performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 8 in E minor, Op, 59. This second of the three “Rasumovsky” quartets is filled with Beethoven’s characteristic drama and punchy rhythmic interplay.

The Calder musicians performed the outer movements with a slight roughness of tone, an apt choice for Beethoven’s more aggressive sound world. Dynamics were deftly shaded in the first movement, and the finale sounded with a keen sense of humor. The off-kilter rhythms of the third movement seemed to twirl in space, and the statements took on a bucolic verve.

The second movement returned the quartet to the lush sound world heard earlier in the evening. Phrases glowed with hymn-like radiance, and the ensemble played with fine attention to the movement’s dialogue as passages in the violin passed easily to viola and cello.

The next program of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival will feature Jordi Savall, Hesperion XXI, and Tembembe Ensamble Continuo in “Folias, Antiguas, and Criollas: The Ancient to the New World” 8 p.m. Friday at the Shalin Liu Performance Center. rockportmusic.org; 978-546-7391

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