Review: Miro Quartet, Bates Recital Hall

The Austin Chronicle

Safe terrain is not where one expects to travel with the Miró Quartet. In the dozen years that it's been quartet-in-residence at the University of Texas, this intrepid foursome has consistently taken routes that offer spectacular rewards but are not without risk. So last Friday evening, it was hardly a surprise to find myself with the ensemble on the side of a mountain, climbing to the summit on a winding road rife with treacherous switchbacks. At least that's how it felt journeying through Schubert's String Quartet No. 15 in G major, a work that revels in extremes. One moment the music is all anxious and fretful, the strings sawing away in jittery apprehension, the next it's settled into a sedate amble, grounded by long, low tones from the cello. Then no sooner has the score calmed down than it works itself into another lather, all four bows fluttering like hummingbird heartbeats and signaling a skittish dread. So it went for the better part of an hour Friday, back and forth and back and forth between passages of easy lyricism and edgy unease, serene beauty and feverish tension – the musical equivalent of bipolar mood swings. To mine the intensity of feeling embedded in any one of the passages requires exceedingly expressive musicians, but to handle the constant shifting between emotional extremes – not to mention its coordination among four players – demands artists of uncommon skill and versatility. That's what gives String Quartet 15 the feel of racing along a cliff's edge, where a wrong move on any of those sharp curves could end in a precipitous drop.

But taking that precarious ride with the Miró was like being inside a perfectly tuned Porsche with an expert hand at the wheel: You barreled along with nary a bump, those hairpin turns handled so smoothly that you never felt the slightest whiplash from the abrupt changes of direction. And the quartet not only negotiated Schubert's wildly disparate musical and emotional states with power and passion, they clearly relished doing so, as was evident in a moment when violinists Daniel Ching and William Fedkenheuer exchanged looks of mock surprise as the music suddenly changed course; as much as the work was demanding of them, the playfulness in their expressions revealed the joy they felt. And that joy transferred to the crowd, where it mingled with the amazement we felt at the command that Fedkenheuer, Ching, violist John Largess, and cellist Joshua Gindele had of this monumental material.

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