If you wanted to get an idea how musically diverse the century we are about to bow out of has been, you only needed to drop in on the Vermeer Quartet's concert Sunday afternoon at the Museum of Fine Arts. And even then you only needed to drop in on the first half.
For there, cheek by jowl, you'd have encountered the spare Viennese modernity of Anton Webern (1883-1945), the melodic simplicity of the young George Gershwin (1898-1937), the edgy neo-classicism of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), the theatrical sentiment of Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) and last, but far from least, the John Cage-influenced indeterminacy, with an eastern-European slant, of Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994).That's a lot of composers in just under an hour. But while I heard people say they didn't like this piece or that (usually the Webern or the Lutoslawski, sometimes both), I didn't hear anybody say their attention had wandered, or complain about the performances.
Indeed, to my ears these four players managed to shed new light on virtually all of this music. At least I cannot recall having heard a more finely shaded, economically expressive account of Webern's Five Movements for String Quartet (1909) - itself pretty economical, given its 12-minute timespan. And at times in the second and fourth sections I am sure I have never heard a quartet play more softly, a haunting effect interrupted only by the unexpected clamor of an electronic pager.
(This prompted a formal plea, following intermission, for the suppression of such devices for the duration of the program.)
After this came the restrained poignancy of the Gershwin "Lullaby" (1919), gently rocked to a vaguely Latin beat. Followed by Stravinsky's more Russian-influenced Concertino (1920), here slithery, acerbic and excitingly rhythmed. And though I may have stretched a point about the Puccini piece - his "Crisantemi," written in 1890 - its affecting strains represent much of what the 20th century carried over from the 19th, including him in his later operas.
The Lutoslawski Quartet (1964) is, by contrast, very much of this century, its Bartokian devices filtered through a later, occasionally chance-music mentality.
In the introductory movement, the effect Sunday was occasionally disconnected but, like random raindrops, strangely hypnotic. After which its agitated disquiet gave way, without pause, to the angry buzz of the main movement, its subsequent pain registering with eerie subtlety (including the "Psycho"-like string attacks and subdued meowing toward the end).
The second half brought a return to a more normal world of musical discourse via the first of Beethoven's "Razumovsky" Quartets, the Op. 59, No. 1 - though it was not so regarded in its day.
But rather than play up its revolutionary aspects, the Vermeer gave us an interpretation of unusual intelligence and maturity, from the songful assurance of the opening movement to the restrained sweetness of the "Russian theme" in the otherwise vigorous finale.
I have heard more dashing accounts, as well as some in which the wire was more pronounced. But in the thoughtful deliberation of the scherzo, with its faintly melancholy trio (both times) and the mellow reflection of the Adagio, the effect was almost that of a late Beethoven quartet, the boldness and intensity sometimes yielding to a controlled depth of expression that gave some of the writing an added dimension.
Likewise the encore, the E major Andante from Mendelssohn's Op. 81, a single movement that, though it may be less striking, made an interesting contrast to Webern's five.