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Cypress String Quartet with Amit Peled

Three great near-death experiences

January 31, 2011

Israeli cellist Amit Peled and the Cypress String Quartet collaborated in a program of late-in-life masterworks by three master composers, Jan. 30 for the San Antonio Chamber Music Society in Temple Beth-El.

Beethoven was represented by his compact final statement for string quartet, the one in F, Op. 135. Franz Schubert’s magnificent Cello Quintet in C was the closer. Mr. Peled opened the concert on his own with a revelation, Benjamin Britten’s Suite No. 3 for solo cello.

By most accounts Britten, who died in 1976, was one of the most important composers of the 20th century. Nearly all of his 13 operas, plus three smaller dramatic woks for church performance, are performed with some frequency, and several are fully part of the standard repertoire -- “Peter Grimes,” “Billy Budd,” “The Turn of the Screw,” “Death in Venice,” at the least. His “War Requiem” is a landmark of the literature for chorus and orchestra -- it was memorably performed in the 1990s by the San Antonio Symphony and an armada of choral groups under Christopher Wilkins. Hardly a day passes without a performance of his “A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” somewhere in the world.

But Britten also was a prolific composer of chamber music, much of which is not yet well known to concert audiences, or to me. Mr. Peled’s luminous performance of the Third Cello Suite was my introduction to this extraordinarily powerful work.

Britten dedicated all three of his cello suites to the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who gave the premieres, though he recorded only the first two. In pre-performance remarks, Mr. Peled said that Rostropovich did not record the third, or play it after the 1974 premiere, because he found it too emotionally wrenching.

The nine-movement work opens with inconsolable sadness and closes with a direct statement of the Russian Orthodox hymn for the dead. Grief in all its aspects, including fury and fond remembrance, pervades the work. There are allusions to the style of J.S. Bach’s cello suites, of which Rostropovich was a superb interpreter, but the music as a whole exemplifies Britten’s own modernist blend of spikiness and lyricism.

Mr. Peled’s warm tone and huge resonance served the piece well, as did, generally speaking, his restraint, although there were times when more fire seemed called for.

From the start of the Beethoven Quartet in F, the Cypress players impressed with their warm sound, their unity of purpose and their seemingly instinctual communication with each other. Lines carried seamlessly from one voice to another. Some decisions relating to articulation and dynamics tended to narrow the expressive range in much of the piece -- the first movement, especially, wanted more forcefulness.The prayerful slow movement, however, was wonderfully played all around, with the feeling of a human voice in every part. The players were violinists Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violist Ethan Filner and cellist Jennifer Kloetzel.

By the time Schubert composed his Quintet in C, shortly before his death in 1828, the string quartet format had become firmly established as the gold standard of chamber music for strings, and Schubert himself already had several important works in that form to his credit. A lesser composer might have made the second cello part (here played by Mr. Peled) a fifth wheel, but Schubert made it more akin to the engine. Often the second cello propels the music and adds rhythmic bite to the proceedings, and Mr. Peled served those purposes exceptionally well.

The ensemble as a whole played the piece with highly animated lines and, in the agitated midsection of the slow movement, intense urgency. Sometimes the tempos were massaged too fussily, impeding the flow, but the rustic Hungarian character of the finale was spiritedly rendered.
Mike Greenberg