Olmsted Quartet serves overlooked composers in style at Gardner Museum

September 26, 2022 at 11:27 am

By Jonathan Blumhofer

The Olmsted Quartet performed Joseph Bologne’s String Quartet in C minor Sunday at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Few figures have benefited more from the current rage for music by composers of color than Joseph Bologne. Given the man’s notoriety as violinist, composer, and fencer during his lifetime, it’s a wonder this bi-racial, 18th-century, Paris-based impresario (who commissioned Haydn’s Paris Symphonies, among other things) ever faded from view. Then again, Fate is fickle with posthumous reputations (just think of J. S. Bach and Mozart), so perhaps we shouldn’t be all that surprised.

At any rate, the music of Bologne that has emerged in the last couple of years is well composed, idiomatic, and distinctive, even if it doesn’t quite scream “undying masterpiece.” That’s certainly true of the String Quartet in C minor (Op. 1, no. 4) that the Olmsted Quartet unveiled in their debut concert Sunday afternoon concert at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall.

A two-movement work from 1773, the quartet is downright Haydn-esque: the balance of writing for the parts, alone, confidently echoes the older master’s efforts in the genre. Nor does it skimp on character, especially in the short, closing Rondeau. Sunday’s shapely performance emphasized that movement’s bold contrasts, both with itself—slashing, energetic outer thirds framing a droning, folksy central section—as well as with the first movement’s gracefully melancholic figurations.

The afternoon’s central offering was by a composer even more obscure than Bologne and, especially given the times, overdue for reconsideration: Johanna Müller-Hermann. A student of Alexander Zemlinsky, her 1910 String Quartet in E-flat echoes many of her teacher’s soupy, chromatic tendencies (as well as Arnold Schoenberg’s contemporaneous end-stage tonal sensibilities). As such, its textures— instrumental and harmonic—are always busy and unsettled.

The Olmsteds were never at a loss for where this music needed to go or how it ought to get there. While the first movement’s neo-Brahmsian opening theme led to some strangely ambiguous places, violinist Gabriela Diaz’s beautifully matched dialogues with cellist Jan Müller-Szeraws always functioned as a reference point, keeping the ears and mind tethered.

In the Scherzo, violist Stephanie Fong’s short solos brought a welcome dose of rustic clarity to its otherwise irresolute phrase structure and the sumptuous Adagio, with its fervent climaxes and shatteringly still moments of introspection, flowed with impressive clarity. So did the finale, much of which sounded like a playfully demented folk dance (think Hindemith and Reger ganging up on Bruch). The music is vigorously contrapuntal, yet Sunday’s balances were such that one could head off into intermission confidently humming the movement’s frenzied refrain.

Franz Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet is, if anything, an even more mellifluous piece. On Sunday, three of the Olmsteds – violinist Katherine Winterstein, violist Fong, and cellist Müller-Szeraws – were joined by pianist Marcantonio Barone and bassist Kebra-Seyoun Charles.

Though Schubert’s unforgiving, exposed violin writing resulted in moments of spotty intonation and the dry-toned Steinway sounded a bit shrill (especially in the Scherzo), the performance’s overriding impression was one of amiability and charm. This was particularly true of the outer movements, which were strongly shaped and, especially from Barone, nimble-fingered.

In the Andante, Fong and Müller-Szeraws offered glowing accounts of the viola-cello duets and the famous fourth movement, with its boisterous elaborations of Schubert’s song, “Die Forelle,” mostly overflowed with élan.

The exception was Müller-Szeraws’ unpackaging of the soaring cello solo in the fifth variation: here, all stood still, the notes floated, and time didn’t matter. Then, too soon, it was over. It was a touching reminder that Schubert, who was just 22 when he wrote the quintet in 1819, was, at heart, an old soul.

Jordan Bak & Friends play music by Telemann, Mozart, Brahms, Charles Martin Loeffler, and others 1:30 p.m. October 2 at Calderwood Hall. gardnermuseum.org

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