CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- If you play enough small pieces you can build a substantial program in both length and quality. Such was the case in the Montclaire String Quartet's performance Sunday afternoon at the University of Charleston's Emma Byrd Gallery. The quality came mostly from compositions by Britten, Schulhoff and Suk but was not lacking in other interesting music.
The program began with the first movement (of two) of Haydn's incomplete final quartet. Montclaire played with refinement, laying out the free-flowing conversational variety of the piece with ease. The development had the ensemble in unison on a melody of haunting octaves before pulsing triplets in the violin animated the action.
Benjamin Britten, who would have turned 100 years old last week, was represented by his excellent Three Divertimenti. The piece, written when the composer was 20, began with a march that had disassociated fanfares and scratches of drum beats that settled into a unison melody before it broke into a typical march texture of tune, stomping bass and off-beat rhythms.
The second movement, Waltz, opened with a dialogue for Amelia Chan's violin and Bernard Di Gregorio's viola before cellist Andrea Di Gregorio joined the exchange.
The finale, Burlesque, had musical sparks flying from the ensemble with vigorous rhythms driving the melodies at a feverish pace.
The ensemble made a solid case for Alexander Glazounov's Prelude and Fugue. Glazounov is almost a footnote of a footnote in music now, but the Fugue that closes the piece was particularly interesting with the typical baroque texture created by uniform rhythmic drive eschewed in favor of one that gradually adds rhythmic activity.
Montclaire ratcheted the tension up before letting it settle calmly at the end.
Alexander Kopylow's Polka was a spry, quiet piece played with flair.
Montclaire found a lilting quality to the dance music of Henry Purcell's Chacony in G Major, in an arrangement by Britten.
Josef Suk's fine "Meditation on an Old Bohemian Chorale" was elegiac in character but richly colored and elegantly detailed in the ensemble's performance.
Montclaire has been playing Erwin Schulhoff's music for many years. So his superb Five Pieces for String Quartet received the type of insightful performance that familiarity with a composer's music can offer.
The details were tellingly played from the second movement's insistent rhythms in five-beat meter to the linear interplay of viola and cello in the fourth movement's accompaniment that supported impassioned melodies of Chan and violinist Anton Shepolov. The finale really is a better perpetual motion machine than Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee" especially given the way Montclaire delivered its racing lines and jazz-like accompaniment.
Piazzola's "Four, for Tango," Frank Bridge's setting of "Danny Boy" and a jocular encore of a set of variations on "Happy Birthday" closed the program. A crowd of about 75 attended.