META4 makes remarkable DC debut at Library of Congress

Thu Oct 19, 2023 at 12:19 pm

META4 performed Wednesday night at the Library of Congress. Phorto: Tero Ahonen

The Finnish string quartet known as META4, founded in 2001, does not come to the United States often. The group made its debut at the Library of Congress Wednesday evening.  The event inaugurated the return of this distinguished classical music series to its home venue, Coolidge Auditorium, reopened after extensive water damage kept it closed most of last season. A capacity audience, all attending for free, filled the hall.

The experience of listening to this esteemed group, playing the repertoire for which they are celebrated, lived up to their reputation. These four musicians, who have recorded much of Kaija Saariaho’s chamber music for strings, worked closely with the Finnish composer over the years. Their performance of her second string quartet, Terra Memoria from 2006, was revelatory, beginning only after the audience had fully quieted down.

That expectant silence is one of the attractions of hearing a concert in Coolidge Auditorium, the best acoustic for intimate chamber music in Washington. The four musicians began the piece almost inaudibly, with a few whispers of sound seeming to grow out of the quiet whirr of the air handler above. Musical ideas pulsed through the growing and receding texture of the piece, in a process that Saariaho, who died this past summer, likened to remembering “those departed.”

The piece did not seem anywhere near its actual length of about 20 minutes, as the tidal pull of the score, gently transforming from more tonal to more dissonant and back again, seemed to suspend time. The gentle application of some unusual techniques, including glissandi and playing nearer the bridge or the fingerboard, kept the ear intrigued as well.

Early in their careers, in 2004, META4 won first prize in the International Shostakovich Quartet Competition in Moscow. Even against strong competition, their rendition of the Russian composer’s String Quartet No. 4 stood out as the finest Shostakovich string quartet performed live in the Washington area in recent memory.

The flavor of Jewish folk music pervades the work from its opening measures, which second violinist Minna Pensola noted as especially relevant given the recent course of events in Israel. Cellist Tomas Djupsjöbacka and violist Atte Kilpeläinen maintained mysterious drones on the open D strings, while contributing to the growing melodic interplay of all four instruments in the opening movement. First violinist Antti Tikkanen struck the optimal balance between virtuosic solo moments and collegial support in the dialogue needed to play this sort of music. In fact, no one player ever stood out, except when the music warranted it, and then because the other three cushioned and spotlighted the lead voice.

The slow movement featured the careful intertwining of the four instruments in a soft elegy of sound, with the three upper instruments often in a treble halo. The gentle dance of the third movement, on the other hand, featured the three lower instruments, again to marvelous effect. A careful, almost imperceptible transition into the fourth movement led to a ghastly transfiguration of the dance, with violent turns making a sobering conclusion to this dark work, as it returned to the D drone of the opening bars.

Even with the intervening intermission, the programming of the concert impressed, as the final selection, Sibelius’s substantial String Quartet in D Minor, seemed to take up where the Shostakovich quartet left off. Sibelius completed the work in 1909, giving it the subtitle “Voces intimae,” and META4’s probing interpretation created the sense of a glimpse into a conversation among close friends.

With four musicians who all play so beautifully as individuals, the first movement’s layering of individual lines was a delight. Except for the cellist, META4 plays standing up, an arrangement that, on one hand, could be visually quite distracting, as members gyrated or lunged forward dramatically. On the other hand, the freedom of movement never seemed exaggerated, merely the expression of the musicians’ understanding of their relative roles.

The two scherzos, positioned second and fourth in this expansive five-movement work, bristled with rhythmic vitality, with ensemble clarity revealing all of the considerable action in the different instruments. The gorgeous third movement includes the quartet’s subtitle, words Sibelius marked at certain surprise chords that interrupt this otherwise seraphic movement in F major. This rarefied performance of one of the monuments of the string quartet repertoire closed with indefatigable energy, with Sibelius’s allusion to folk fiddle music adding another connection to this brilliantly curated program.

No surprise then that META4 tied up this concert with a perfect encore, the last movement (“J:Jusslin”) of Timo Alakotila’s String Quartet No. 1, which META4 commissioned from the Finnish composer in 2010. First violinist Antti Tikkanen described the piece as “what the sixth movement of the Sibelius quartet would have sounded like if he had written one.” A vivacious romp, the music is in part an arrangement of a Finnish folk song.

Pianist Eric Huebner and computer musician Jacob Sundstrom join Wet Ink Ensemble for a program of recent music by Roger Reynolds and Kate Soper 7 p.m. October 30.

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