Review: Cuarteto Casals’ range and athleticism on brilliant display

Cuarteto Casals was at Dominion-Chalmers United Church on Monday evening.

If there’s one thing you can count on at a Chamberfest concert, it’s that it will start 10 to 15 minutes late. A 7:30 p.m. call normally means the first notes will be heard at around 7:45, after artistic director Roman Borys and one or more board members and special guests have gone through welcoming remarks, housekeeping reminders and thank yous to a long list of sponsors and volunteers.

So when a traffic delay got me to Dominion Chalmers at 7:32 for Monday night’s performance by the Casals Quartet, I walked through the doors serenely, figuring I had at least eight more minutes to get to my seat. Imagine my surprise to hear the quartet already into the exposition of the first movement of Haydn’s Op.33 No.3. I immediately deduced that the garrulous Borys must be out of town, and slunk in, shame-faced and contrite, for the second movement.

The Barcelona-based Casals are well into their 22nd season. If they still look improbably youthful and glamorous, it’s because they were teenage prodigies when they first got together. (The Tomas brothers Abel (violin) and Arnau (cello), and violinist Vera Martinez, are original founders; American violist Jonathan Brown joined them in 2002). The ensemble is known for its vast repertoire, spanning from the Baroque to contemporary Spanish composers, and for its exceptionally fiery, jacked-up style.

Monday night’s program put the Casals’ range and athleticism on brilliant display. Abel Tomas has a lighter, more sentimental touch than Martinez, so it made sense to have him in the first violin spot for the opening Haydn. The quartet’s lustrous, muscular sound didn’t weigh down the work’s playful grace and domesticity, but added satisfying grit to the lusty final Rondo.

However, I found the Mendelssohn Quartet No. 6, this time led by Martinez, suffered from the ensemble’s intense zeal and aggressive attack. This isn’t Brahms, or even Schumann, and I found the group’s almost symphonic sense of grandeur out of place. There was too much pathos, and not enough simple tenderness. Tremolos were thickly accented, shouted rather than whispered. The Adagio lacked soul and singing portamento. The players’ fierce virtuosity was undeniably impressive, but it left me cold.

Earlier in the evening, Bartok’s Quartet No. 3 had fit the Casals’ temperament to a T. Led again by Martinez, the musicians brought the work’s intricate, kaleidoscopic counterpoint into sharp focus, applying huge dynamic range and vividly painted contrasts in mood and tone. Bartok’s rich dialogue between the viola and cello was beautifully balanced and highlighted.

Even though the audience roared its approval, you couldn’t hide the fact that the venue was barely half full. With many patrons away, March can be a hard sell for arts organizations. This year’s exceptionally harsh winter and ice-covered sidewalks haven’t helped with ticket sales. Here’s to some more clement weather ahead.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.