Haunting Intensity from the Navarra String Quartet at Lincoln Center
Just about every month this spring, there’s a free classical concert at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd Street in conjunction with the current Great Performers series. There’s also just about every other stye of music made in every community in New York here too. It’s especially interesting to see who turns out for the classical shows. Last night a packed house representing just about every age group and community here in town was treated to a performance by UK group the Navarra String Quartet.
Cellist Brian O’Kane introduced Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks’ music as “Full of beautiful landscapes, very atmospheric…one can hear his love of nature and quite a lot of spirituality. In contrast, there are quite a few episodes of struggle after a very horrible regime in the Eastern Bloc.”
The group moved gently into the stillness, ghostly glissandos and subtle trills of the opening movement of his 1999 String Quartet No. 4. O’Kane anchored the group’s slow climb from brooding austerity to agitation and then back, violinists Magnus and Marije Johnston rising alongside Sascha Bota’s viola.
Furtively circling, rhythmic variations on a chase theme grew to a blaze, reflecting O’Kane’s comments about the music’s political content. The group channeled desolation and loss in a muted series of ominously stacked, Arvo Part-like harmonies, going deep into the relentless angst as the music peaked in a series of waves.
The contrast between the violins and the lower instruments underscored a growing terror as the chase scene recurred: no doubt this kind of thing happened all the time when the KGB were prowling Vasks’ home turf. Exchanges of guarded prayerfulness and forlorn resignation mingled in the mist; Bota adding hushed, somberly tremoloing pedalpoint. The eerily wafting conclusion offered no sense of closure: the audience, who’d already been taken by surprise by the composer’s many full stops earlier i the work, slowly processed the intensity.
Right at the second the group returned to the stage for Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major, a siren wailed down Columbus Avenue. Undeterred, the quartet built Parisian wistfulness toward a heroic overture, Magnus Johnston’s silken but aching lines telgraphing that all would not be fin de siècle contentment here.
The group’s vigorous pizzicato had the same effect in the waltzing second movement, foreshadowing the twists and turbulence that ends up infusing the dance. The wounded calm the ensemble built in the third was as it was gorgeous, especially when they hit the big crescendo. Likewise, their fiery launch into the fourth. Credit the quartet for realizing what a perhaps surprisingly good segue it made after the harrowing intensity of the first half od the program.
They encored with a moody miniature by Kurtag, “To calm ourselves down,” as O’Kane grinned. The next Lincoln Center atrium concert is on Valentine’s Day at 7:30 PM with energetic, individualistic Cape Verde islands singer/guitarist Tcheka. Show up early if you want a seat.