Dudok Quartet Amsterdam returned to the Northwestern Winter Chamber Music Festival on Sunday evening with a program of music from France, with a work by the Austrian Franz Joseph Haydn thrown in. As was case in their last appearance at Evanston’s Pik-Staiger Hall in 2018, this young group showed off a wonderful light handed touch and exquisite ensemble interaction. Just as importantly, the Dudok Quartet Amsterdam preceded the performances with excellent explanations of the music and, in doing so, established a nice rapport with the audience.
The first half of the concert concerned the 18th century, starting with Jean-Philippe Rameau, an oddity since this baroque French composer was active decades before the string quartet line-up came into vogue. Dudok cellist David Faber arranged a suite from Rameau’s Opera of 1737, Castor and Pollux. In doing so, he enabled performance of music from an age that is rarely, if ever, heard in string quartet concerts. It was a very nice departure from the norm.
Castor and Pollux was a perfect vehicle for the Dudoks to show off their subtle touch and careful interplay between one another. Rather than bombast and fire, most passages were lyrical, with the two violins playing melodies in counterpoint separated by major thirds and other small intervals. The viola and cello were wonderful complements, sometimes trading the melodies with the violins. Faber might have arranged for his cello to have a bit more prominence in the mix, but it was still very enjoyable, nevertheless.
While Rameau predated the composition of string quartets, the next piece was part of a set of six compositions from 1872 that essentially defined the medium. Haydn’s Sun Quartets, Op. 20, offered arrangements that went far beyond the prevailing practice of the first violin taking the lead with the other instruments providing backup. Here, for the first time, Haydn called on each instrument to make significant contributions to the overall musical fabric. Though thoroughly new in their use of all four instruments, musically, these quartets look back to the baroque age of Rameau, where interweaving melodies, counterpoint, and fugue feature prominently.
The Dudok Quartet Amsterdam recently recorded these groundbreaking works, and first violinist Judith van Driel gave a thoughtful and detailed explanation of the second quartet of Haydn’s Op. 20, in C-major, which included lengthy musical snippets. Providing such learning opportunities is a welcome way to break down barriers between performers and listeners, which can sometimes seem overly rigid in classical music concerts.
The performance was great. Like the Rameau, this music is more lyrical than bombastic, and the interplay between the instruments was remarkable, especially between van Driel and Faber in the opening movement’s middle section. The contrasts between the stark slow movement and light minuet were also very effective.
The second half of the concert turned to French music from the 20th century. Olivier Messiaen wrote a series of pieces for an outdoor festival of sound, water, and light organized in conjunction with the 1937 Paris world’s fair. For Fête des belles eaux, Messiaen used an Ondes Martenot, an early electronic instrument that generates a single tone that was amplified. Dudok cellist Faber transcribed the sixth piece, “Oraison,” (“Prayer”) for string quartet, and its meditative, yet haunting tones served as a perfect introduction to the evening’s main work, Maurice Ravel’s String Quartet in F-major, which the Dudoks attacked with little break from the Messiaen.
Written in 1902-3, Ravel’s piece bears similarities in tonality and overall affect to Claude Debussy’s string quartet in g-minor, written 10 years previously. The opening sonata-formed movement has a wonderfully lilting feel that creates a dreamy aural fabric. As with the other works on the program, there are not a lot of fireworks here, mainly wistful moments and meditations.
It worked perfectly for Dudok Quartet Amsterdam’s overall sound, and the climaxes came seamlessly. The second movement shifts back and forth between rapidly plucked strings and quiet melodies, allowing the Dudoks to exhibit tight musicianship in various contexts. The measured restraint on display throughout the evening allowed the ensemble to open up and play the finale with the appropriate gusto and intensity. It was an excellent contrast to the earlier material.
After several rousing ovations, the Dudoks offered an encore: a lovely rendition of the third movement from György Ligeti’s second string quartet.
The Northwestern Winter Chamber Music Festival wraps up this weekend. On Friday, January 24, Bienen School Faculty will be performing Beethoven and Brahms. For the final concert on Sunday, January 26, soprano Stephanie Blythe will be offering songs by Franz Schubert with the American String Quartet, which will be playing quartets by Schubert and Haydn.