Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston was the scene of a rare treat on Saturday evening as the Callisto Quartet brought youthful energy to a wide ranging program. Comprised of four musicians who are still in their early 20s, Callisto played with lush intensity and bravado, yet exhibited the cohesion and intonation one might expect from an ensemble twice their age. Although the program ended in a less than stellar way, they demonstrated sophistication that heralds great promise.
The concert, which was part of the Music Institute of Chicago’s Faculty and Guest Artist Series, opened with a masterful performance of Franz Schubert’s String Quartet No. 12 in c-minor, Quartettsatz, D. 703. A single movement work, the Quartettsatz offers a complete musical statement in only 9 minutes. It starts with the first violinist playing a fluttering tune that sounds like a bumble bee. Paul Aguilar handled it adroitly, as the other instruments joined in to create a crescendo capped by crisp chords. The piece incorporates things typically found in Schubert: moments of harsh tension broken up by charming melodies, all the while exploring interesting harmonies.
In an unusual staging practice, the Callisto Quartet places cellist Hannah Moses to the right of the other three instruments, which allows the violins and viola, who hold their smaller instruments under their chins, to sway together with the music’s ebbs and flows, while the cellist, who’s larger instrument is anchored to the floor, is set apart. It created an interesting visual effect that added to the tight ensemble cohesion evident in the Schubert.
Next on the program was the 6th and final string quartet by Béla Bartók, a Hungarian composer who flourished in the first half of the 20th Century. His quartets represent a milestone in that they combine modern atonalities with a new approach to playing and represent a huge departure from the form perfected 100 years earlier by Ludwig van Beethoven.
Bartók wrote String Quartet No. 6 at the outbreak of World War II, and a mood of intense sadness permeates, starting at the beginning with a wailing lament on the viola. Violist Eva Kennedy offered a soulful interpretation, reflected in facial expressions exhibited throughout the performance. Moses on cello created a similarly effective opening to the second movement, although her facial expressions were restrained.
The Callisto Quartet wonderfully captured the varied feel of the first three movements that mix quiet reflection with intense chords, playful melody, and lengthy passages of pizzicato plucked strings. Yet, throughout, even in the lighter moments, the ensemble preserved the sense of foreboding. It all comes to a head with the finale, where Bartók employs plodding chords to underpin slow moving melodies to create non-stop gloom, which the ensemble ably captured on Saturday night.
The plodding chords continued in the second half with the Chicago premiere of Cantos, a work composed by Francisco Coll in 2017. Unlike the finale in the Bartók, this work is more hopeful, with sounds seeming to ooze out and drift to more pleasing pastures. Cantos features passages that were super quiet and super loud, which allowed the Callisto Quartet to show off an immense dynamic range.
The concert closed with Beethoven’s Quartet No 8 in e-minor, Op. 59 no. 2, one of a handful of works that heralded his middle period, which represented a break with the classical models perfected by Haydn and Mozart. As with his other works from this period, Beethoven found levels of intensity and passion previously unknown to classical music. He also mixed in quiet moments of reflection and introspection. It tested the limits of the Callisto’s youthful energy. They met the task in the opening two movements, but their exuberance got the best of them in the Scherzo third movement and, to a lesser extent, in the finale.
The opening movement was generally tight, and the ensemble effectively captured the mood changes between the intense minor-key and reflective major-key passages. Notwithstanding a couple of rapid melodic runs when the first violin seemed to struggle to keep pace, the playing captured a feel that borders on frenetic. The slow movement is a great example of the passion Beethoven brought to music, and the score instructs players to play with intense feeling. The ensemble completely reproduced this intensity.
Unfortunately a too rapid tempo was applied to the scherzo, which, marked a quick but restrained Allegretto, is a movement that really does not warrant it. Although there were not any obviously missed notes, they seemed to be rushing through phrases, with lots of energy, but little finesse. The finale was much better in terms of tempo, but the harshness that typically emerges from this music seemed a bit much. The sound was too textured and the notes seemed to get lost. Schubert’s Quartettsatz, which opened the evening, can also be harsh, but they sounded a much better tone there.
Notwithstanding the way it ended, the concert was really quite good. For a young ensemble, the Callisto Quartet showed remarkable cohesion and ensemble play. There is a bright future here, even with occasional stumbles.