Revew: META4 makes remarkable DC debut at Library of Congress
By Charles T. Downey
The Finnish string quartet known as META4, founded in 2001, does not come to the United States often. The group made its debut at the Library of Congress Wednesday evening. The event inaugurated the return of this distinguished classical music series to its home venue, Coolidge Auditorium, reopened after extensive water damage kept it closed most of last season. A capacity audience, all attending for free, filled the hall.
The experience of listening to this esteemed group, playing the repertoire for which they are celebrated, lived up to their reputation. These four musicians, who have recorded much of Kaija Saariaho’s chamber music for strings, worked closely with the Finnish composer over the years. Their performance of her second string quartet, Terra Memoria from 2006, was revelatory, beginning only after the audience had fully quieted down.
The piece did not seem anywhere near its actual length of about 20 minutes, as the tidal pull of the score, gently transforming from more tonal to more dissonant and back again, seemed to suspend time. The gentle application of some unusual techniques, including glissandi and playing nearer the bridge or the fingerboard, kept the ear intrigued as well.
Early in their careers, in 2004, META4 won first prize in the International Shostakovich Quartet Competition in Moscow. Even against strong competition, their rendition of the Russian composer’s String Quartet No. 4 stood out as the finest Shostakovich string quartet performed live in the Washington area in recent memory.
Even with the intervening intermission, the programming of the concert impressed, as the final selection, Sibelius’s substantial String Quartet in D Minor, seemed to take up where the Shostakovich quartet left off. Sibelius completed the work in 1909, giving it the subtitle “Voces intimae,” and META4’s probing interpretation created the sense of a glimpse into a conversation among close friends.
With four musicians who all play so beautifully as individuals, the first movement’s layering of individual lines was a delight. Except for the cellist, META4 plays standing up, an arrangement that, on one hand, could be visually quite distracting, as members gyrated or lunged forward dramatically. On the other hand, the freedom of movement never seemed exaggerated, merely the expression of the musicians’ understanding of their relative roles.
The two scherzos, positioned second and fourth in this expansive five-movement work, bristled with rhythmic vitality, with ensemble clarity revealing all of the considerable action in the different instruments. The gorgeous third movement includes the quartet’s subtitle, words Sibelius marked at certain surprise chords that interrupt this otherwise seraphic movement in F major. This rarefied performance of one of the monuments of the string quartet repertoire closed with indefatigable energy, with Sibelius’s allusion to folk fiddle music adding another connection to this brilliantly curated program.