The last time the Snowbird Institute and Muir String Quartet premiered a piece of Richard Danielpour's in these parts, it was in the cramped acoustic of Westminster College's Jewett Center. Friday, by contrast, it was amid the vaulted expanse of the Cathedral of the Madeleine. Yet, remarkably, the composer was still able to pull the listener into his most intimate thoughts.
Here those concern the Holocaust, as memorialized in his String Quartet No. 3, subtitled "Psalms of Sorrow."The Psalms in question are 39 and 17, in the freely poetic translations of Stephen Mitchell. But those are reserved for the last movement, "Benediction," where Friday they were movingly intoned by baritone William Sharp over the chromatic unease of the strings.
Earlier it was the strings themselves that set the tone, beginning with "Elegy," a movement of almost Shostakovichian sadness (even down to some thematic recollections) and intensity. Nor is Shostakovich absent in the harshly aggressive second movement, "Remembrance," where after some lyrically ambivalent interludes, the slashing resumes with an almost Bartokian frenzy.
In each the Muir was fully on top of the writing, from the somber viola solo and meditative fugato of the first to the mounting terror of the second (which, the composer has said, is meant to evoke the horrors of Kristallnacht).
At the same time, however, they also brought out Danielpour's own voice, as he moves from the quiet pain and biting savagery of these to the plaintiveness of the third movement, with its even more personal (I think) evocations of the late-romantic, barely pre-serial Second Viennese School.
For here the emotions are as mixed as the harmonies, disclosing beneath the words of acceptance a plaintiveness that is not so accepting, even in the face of the inevitable. Thus, as Sharp's words echoed through the cathedral's vastness, the strings seemed to be uttering prayers of their own, sometimes individually. And in the process the Psalmist, with his plea for "the light of your face," was gradually rocked to sleep in a major/minor triad - an ambivalent resolution at best.
Earlier the Muir paved the way for this with a broadly paced reading of Mozart's Quartet in D minor, K. 421, in which the cathedral's reverberant acoustics gave us everything two or maybe even three times.
Perhaps that is what accounted for the elongated phrasing. Just the same, the melancholy sweetness of the first two movements and deliberate angst of the third seemed to foreshadow the Danielpour. And it certainly didn't hold them back in the Ravel Quartet that followed, where, following the serpentine wistfulness of the opening movement, they really tore into the piece.
The result was a tremendously involving performance, with the pizzicati of the scherzo registering like nobody's business. After which came the controlled ardor of the third movement - here very slow, as marked - and a finale whose incendiary excitement had me on the edge of my seat.
It wasn't more involving than the Danielpour, however, which had to contend with the same cavernous acoustic. But until the baritone entered, I hardly noticed.