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The New Esterházy Quartet expands their repertoire with more symphonic music

The members of the New Esterházy Quartet: Lisa Weiss, Anthony Martin, William Skeen, and Kati Kyme
by R. L. Beach, from their Web site

Following up on last January’s program of arrangements of symphonic music, the New Esterházy Quartet (violinists Kati Kyme and Lisa Weiss, violist Anthony Martin, and cellist William Skeen) once again decided to begin the New Year with another such program. Given its San Francisco performance yesterday afternoon in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, the program was entitled Paris Symphonies. It consisted of symphonies by Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Luigi Cherubini, each of which had its own distinctive “Paris connection.”

Of these selections, the most interesting was Mozart’s K.297 (“Paris”) symphony in D major, so named because Mozart composed it in Paris in 1778 when he visited the city looking for work. What distinguished this part of the program was that the string quartet arrangement had been prepared (and recently completed) by Skeen. While last year’s Mozart selection, the K. 414 piano concerto in A major, had been published with the suggestion that the piano could be accompanied by a string quartet, K. 297 requires far more extensive instrumental resources: two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets (in A), two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings. This was the first time Mozart used clarinets in a symphony, and one might guess that he was determined to impress by working on a grand scale.

Nevertheless, as we know from his later piano concertos, Mozart never drew upon the wind and brass families merely for the sake of summoning more massive sonorities. He understood the sonorous potential of each instrument that went into his scoring. However, each part was a voice in an extended conversation; and no instrument was ever introduced for “mere coloration.”

Skeen was thus confronted with the challenge of taking a contrapuntal texture realized through a diverse variety of acoustic qualities and abstracting it to fit the resources of a string quartet. That texture included an eight-part fugue in the final movement, which should be sufficient to indicate the magnitude of that challenge. Nevertheless, Skeen’s arrangement successfully captured the essence of all of that counterpoint; and, if the sonorities were more limited, the players could still muster the impact of a Mannheim-style crescendo within the scale of their own dynamic ranges.

K. 297 was given its first public performance by the musicians who performed in the Concert Spirituel series. The Haydn symphony, Hoboken I/85 in B-flat major composed in 1785, was also performed in this series. Haydn never visited Paris, but he was known there as early as 1764 through the circulation of pirated editions of his quartets and symphonies. Because of his reputation, he was commissioned by Claude-François-Marie Rigolet, Comte d'Ogny, to compose six symphonies for Concert Spirituel performances. The B-flat major symphony came to be called “La Reine” (the queen) because it had appealed particularly to Marie Antoinette. That title appeared on the front page of a copy of the score that had been presented to her, which she kept in her cell at the Bastille prior to her execution.

In this case the quartet arrangement was probably by Haydn himself. It was published the year after Haydn had prepared his own string quartet arrangement of Seven Last Words. In this case the transition was far less challenging. However, here, again, the arrangement tended to enhance the intricacy of Haydn’s approach to counterpoint without ever short-changing his ever-present capacity for wit. The provided New Esterházy to approach the music with the same energetic verve and spirit that they bring consistently to their Haydn quartet performances.

The program concluded with Luigi Cherubini’s second string quartet. This C major quartet, composed in 1829, was based on the D major symphony he had composed in 1815. Cherubini had been living in Paris since 1786, but he had composed the symphony for the London Philharmonic Society. The string quartet version was prepared in Paris with one major alteration. He replaced the second Larghetto cantabile movement of the symphony with a more emotionally intense Lento.

In his introductory remarks Martin observed that Cherubini could be consumed by long periods of depression and by radical mood swings. He was approaching 70 when he prepared the quartet version and may have felt that he could reflect on his mental struggles through his music. Yesterday afternoon’s performance captured those struggles with a somewhat subdued intensity that seemed entirely appropriate.

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