The Ancora String Quartet has chosen for its 2011-2012 season the overall theme of "The Musician and his Muse" -- pointing up the debt that composers owed to the performers who inspired them.
The theme was altogether apt in the case of the two works the quartet performed Saturday night at the First Unitarian Society. Grieg's sole completed string quartet, Op. 27, and the first of Beethoven's "Rasumovsky" quartets, Op. 59, each drew heavily upon collaboration with friends who were the leaders of string quartets of their day.
Edvard Grieg is one of those unknown-familiar composers, beloved for only a very small portion of their outputs generally known to the public. His guilty sense of the need to produce large-scale works in "serious" forms haunted rather than stimulated him, and the famous Piano Concerto is the only one widely familiar. The heart of his achievement is really in his large body of small pieces for piano, in which he drew upon and helped define the folk music of his native Norway. As a result, he is too easily thought of as a miniaturist and shrugged off as a minor master.
But Grieg was widely admired in his day for his very bold harmonic style, forged out of folk backgrounds, and his piano pieces were quite influential on the next generation of composers. Above all, the G-minor Quartet -- full of self-allusions and self-quotations -- embodied that style and served as an important prototype for the single quartet of that trailblazer into modernism, Debussy.
Grieg's Quartet is too rarely heard, out on the margins of the literature. It is to the Ancora's credit that the group not only gave it a hearing but poured their talents into its impassioned writing in a powerful demonstration of the score's importance and effectiveness.
The other work on the program was a strong one indeed. Beethoven's Op. 59, No. 1 in F, the first of the composer's so-called middle-period quartets, is almost like a suite of individual character pieces. Beethoven's genius in making so much (in sonata form) out of so little is demonstrated in the first movement, while the second is a scherzo of almost demonically saucy cleverness.
The slow movement is a marvel, a kind of funereal march in theme-with-elaborations form that looks back to the "Eroica" symphony's second movement and ahead to the Ninth Symphony's third movement in scheme, and to the eloquent cantabiles of the late quartets. That slow movement leads directly to a finale of pseudo-Slavic rusticity in sonata-form corset.
The four Ancora players, if they put their hearts into Grieg, put their souls into this Beethoven, going beyond technical proficiency (no mean feat itself!) into profound eloquence, above all in that sublime second movement.
Last evening we had the St Martin's Academy players in Brahms and Mendelssohn at the Union. Down the road and always around the corner, we can count on the Pro Arte Quartet on campus. In the mix, at the First Unitarian Society, is the Ancora Quartet, an ensemble that is a blessing in itself for Madison. Such a music scene!