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Chamber music aficionados packed the pews at the Church of the Holy City on Sunday afternoon for the season-closing concert of the Copeland String Quartet. It was certainly an event worth venturing out for on a rainy spring afternoon, and the musicians appeared quite delighted at the capacity audience.
The main offering on the program was Brahms’ autumnal masterpiece, the Clarinet Quintet, featuring the talents of the Delaware Symphony Orchestra’s principal clarinetist Charles Salinger.
The work was premiered by none other than the Joachim Quartet led by violinist Joseph Joachim with clarinetist Richard Muhlfeld whose playing impressed Brahms so much he came out of compositional retirement to write this enduring masterpiece for him.
This is a difficult work to pull off. Brahms was a master of counterpoint, skilled in the subtleties of rhythm and melody. There’s a lot going in a Brahms composition and unless the players have a broad sense of the work, the result can be turgid and endlessly dull.
Happily, that did not happen here. Copeland turned in an achingly beautiful performance with a lush string sound overlaid by Salinger’s lithe and liquid clarinet. The poignancy of alternating major and minor tonalities was interspersed with decisive declamatory passages. Salinger’s rhapsodic playing over wavering strings in the second movement entered into a shadowy dialogue with Eliezer Gutman’s first violin, colluding in final rising arpeggios. Salinger’s virtuosic command of his instrument revealed itself in the mercurial leaps of the third movement. Gutman navigated his colleagues through some intricate tempi in the fourth movement which also afforded a solo opportunity to cellist Jie Jin.
Music of a very different sort opened the program: Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 3, Op. 73 in F major. The Third was the only work composed by Shostakovich in 1946, an indication of the trouble that lay ahead. The Zhdanov Decree was two years away but already the attacks had begun against artists and writers.
The writing in this quartet makes incredible demands on the players. Much of it is set in the instruments’ higher registers and there are instances of soloistic virtuosity that seem at odds with the ensemble playing expected in a quartet. Furthermore, the harmonic language is gritty. Each movement is in a home key but the continuously chromatic writing obscures the tonality.
Copeland offered a most impressive rendering of this emotional work. The players applied a light touch to the almost Haydnesque first movement, took a cautiously restrained approach to the ominous second and unleashed the demonic power of the Scherzo. The last two movements took the audience to an even darker place before settling into an uneasy peace with the three closing F major chords.