Review: Miró Quartet makes some mixed magic with meat-and-potatoes music

Miró Quartet: William Fedkenheuer second violin; John Largess, viola; Daniel Ching, violin and Joshua Gindele, cello.

The Miró Quartet brought its Texas-sized sound to Chamberfest Monday night with a steak-and-potatoes program of Haydn, Dvořák and late Beethoven. The concert was presented as a tribute to Joseph Kun, the Czech violinist, instrument-maker and inventor, who developed his renowned shoulder rest after immigrating to Ottawa.

This wasn’t the Austin-based Miró Quartet’s first time in Ottawa, and their fans turned out to whistle and cheer. But despite a bold, high-octane performance, the ensemble exhibited impossible-to-ignore tuning issues that took away from the overall effect.

The problems started with the first exclamatory chord of Haydn’s Op. 71 No. 3 in E-flat major. The pitch was so approximate that the following phrase had to slide easily into place, as if from some far-off key. Of the three composers on the program, Haydn was least suited to Miró’s supersized, gritty sound and steel-toed personality. The Andante in particular, with its dainty dotted rhythms, wanted a more refined touch.  The Finale was jolly enough, but the shape of the phrasing was lost in a claustrophobic thicket of vibrato.

The tuning continued to be less than impeccable in Dvořák’s String Quartet No. 9. First violin Daniel Ching seemed to struggle all evening for control in the higher range of his instrument. But this moody, darkly expressive work at least was more sympatico to the musicians’ approach. The Allegro was marvellously restless, intense, and suggestive of the composer’s inner turmoil. The ravishing Adagio was painted in expansive, sun-dappled strokes, with tenderly whispered inner voices.

Beethoven’s Op. 131 made up the entire second half. Miró has gradually been recording the complete Beethoven Quartets, and the group truly shines in the dramatic late compositions. The foursome’s masterful concept of these seven linked movements is firm and clear, every idea and phrase connecting seamlessly to the next, each wave of tension and release artfully planned, yet appeared spontaneous.

From the broad, dignified opening Adagio, to the elegant, hymn-like reserve of the third movement, the orderly slow burn of the theme and variations, and the prancing cavalry charge of the final Allegro, there was careful thought and intention behind every note.

An excerpt from Dvořák’s Cypresses made for an affectionate encore, with poetic playing by violist John Largess.

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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.