Endellion Quartet displays virtuoso talent, group unity

Saturday in Brooks-Rogers, the world-renowned Endellion String Quartet played a concert of colossal proportions. Often we think of chamber music as an art that is beautiful and quaint yet lacks the substantial power of a major compositional work. The Williams College community received a marvelous reminder that this form of music can be as fulfilling and emotionally draining as the best of the symphonic literature. Indeed the Williams community benefited from this, as students made up approximately 10 percent of the near-filled Brooks-Rogers hall.

The quartet, which was founded in 1979, plays as a cohesive unit and yet each player has enormous virtuosic capacity. The first piece, Haydn’s “Froschquartett” (the Frog), gave first violinist Andrew Watkinson the spotlight. Haydn wrote the piece for a specific violinist and thus it has tremendous energy, initially intended for a particular Viennese virtuoso.

Endellion hit the ground running. The first thing that became apparent (besides their stunning technical capabilities) was the group dynamic. Especially in the first moments of the performance, there was an intense amount of body language coming from all parties. This died down steadily as the concert progressed, no doubt due to fatigue. Violinist Ralph de Souza and violist Garfield Jackson performed as a strong unit in the Haydn, especially with parallel scalar passages. There is something about seeing flawless bowing (directional changes made at exact moments) that is pleasing to the eye. This ballet-like visual effect is another fortunate byproduct of musical precision in the string quartet genre.

The fourth movement, which requires Watkinson to play the same note repeatedly on two adjacent strings in succession, is fun to watch. It is almost humorous how difficult the bowing is, yet a first class performer such as Watkinson can color those notes so wonderfully (indeed the interest of color is Haydn’s intention in calling for such a technique), even if he is a little showy.

In terms of phrasing, the Haydn is generally straightforward. The Trio, however, has some unaccented downbeats in the menuetto where one might expect accents. Often there is a temptation to imply some sort of accent at these moments. Fortunately, Endellion backed off and let the subtleties speak for themselves.

The adagio (second movement) was a bit disappointing. It should be reserved and held back but it felt flat at times. Endellion has a fun intra-group dynamic during movements with speed and virtuosity, but this energy and even facial interaction ceased in the adagio. Cellist David Waterman, who was fantastically entertaining for almost the entire program, came up a little short on some of the arpeggios and scales and at times looked almost lost. This indeed left lingering doubts as to whether the Endellion plays slow movements well. This question would be answered in the second half of the program.

Béla Bartók’s Quartet no. 3 is a major undertaking. The piece requires a variety of techniques whose successful execution has a profound impact on the performance as a whole. Certainly an accomplished quartet such as Endellion is expected to have no problem physically executing these techniques, but their integration into the piece is of particular interest. In this largely atonal work, Bartók asks the performers to play on the bridge of their instruments, play plucked double stops (which comes off sounding like a guitar), play with the wood of the bow (col legno) and pluck the strings towards the top of the instrument. It’s quite a scene!

While I found it difficult to listen to a recording of this piece, watching the performance was completely engaging. The balance that Endellion found at the beginning of the Seconda parte (the piece is four continuos movements) was indicative of their overall successful reading of this piece. Waterman’s quiet, and then slightly louder, double stopped pizzicatos (plucked chords) were unbelievably clear. Meanwhile, De Souza’s sustained muted trill and Jackson’s pizzicatos and double-stopped pizzicatos brilliantly set up Watkinson’s lyrical solo line.

The buildup that Endellion managed was intense. In the third and especially the fourth movement, the return of previous themes (in various incarnations, only occasionally recognizable as Bartók presents them) gave a sense of arrival. The performance was highly emotional and gave the audience its best chance to hear de Souza and Jackson’s prowess; Jackson’s solo tone is stunning and the intensity de Souza brings to the piece can be summed up by the broken hairs on his bow at the performance’s end.

The second half of the program consisted of Beethoven’s F major quartet (Op. 59 no. 1, “Razumovsky”). This piece, which pushes 40 minutes, is quite an endeavor, especially after the Haydn and Bartók. Before the playing, Watkinson eulogized recently passed Yehudi Menuhin, world famous violinist/conductor, with two amusing anecdotes.

What stood out in their reading of the Beethoven was the rhythmic vitality of the piece. Beethoven, whose motifs frequently have a rhythmic punch, is at his best in this quartet in terms of rhythmic interest. Waterman set up the second movement allegretto with a dynamic and humorous playing of the rhythmic feature appropriate for this scherzando.

The striking blend that Endellion achieved in the Beethoven was unprecedented in the concert, not because of any previous technical lapse, but due to the piece’s inherent orchestration. With the exception of the third movement, which comes off as a concerto for first violin complete with a cadenza (which Watkinson subtly mastered), the Beethoven often requires a thick and egalitarian blend.

The third movement addressed the issue as to how well this group plays a slow movement. On one hand this movement was entirely more expressive than the adagio of the Haydn; on the other hand, this movement has a wider emotional range. It seems that Endellion provide brilliant contrasts when given the opportunity but lose their charm and focus (and even their trademark eye-contact interaction) when a movement is particularly reserved.

The fourth movement (like much of Beethoven) keeps on “almost ending,” as fellow critic Paul Di Blasi ’02 pointed out. Partly exhaustive and partly exciting, Beethoven keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout. The players seemed entirely amused during their virtuosic performance, while they had been more subdued in the previous movements. Like much of the evening, you could read the entertained emotion of the entire quartet off of the animated face of cellist David Waterman. The Brooks-Rogers audience heartily agreed.