Dalí Quartet brings Latin panache to Library of Congress Stradivari anniversary

Tue Dec 19, 2023 at 1:01 pm

The Dalí Quartet performed Monday night at the Library of Congress. Photo: Ryan Brandenberg

The reviewing year in Washington often comes to an end with the Antonio Stradivari anniversary concert, an annual event at the Library of Congress. With something like the festive joy of Christmas, the distinguished free concert series invites a string quartet to play a concert on the Stradivarius instruments held in its collection. This year the Dalí Quartet did the honors Monday night with a striking Latin-infused program.

Suitable for the holidays, the evening involved a family reunion of sorts, opening with Divertimento Caribeño No. 3 by Sonia Morales-Matos, the sister of the Dalí Quartet’s cellist, Jesús Morales. The Puerto Rican composer describes these pieces as suites of Caribbean dances. In this case, they form two merengues, of a variety called apambichao from the Dominican Republic, sandwiched around a Cuban bolero.

The fast sections percolated with complex, syncopated rhythms, and all four musicians aligned in a collective groove. The middle section offered more solo opportunities, beginning with first violinist Ari Isaacman-Beck, sultry of tone on the “Betts” violin made by Stradivari in 1704. Violist Adriana Linares sounded the most thoroughly bonded with her Strad, the 1727 “Cassavetti,” dark yet sweet like Cuban coffee in her solo moment.

Ricardo Morales, the principal clarinetist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, joined as the evening’s third Morales sibling in Carl Maria von Weber’s Clarinet Quintet. The Library of Congress owns the manuscript of this work, on display in the lobby of Coolidge Auditorium and likely the reason for programming it. Indeed, the only other time the piece has come under review was on the same concert series in 2017.

Written for Heinrich Baermann, eminent clarinetist of the Munich court orchestra in the early 19th century, much of the piece is an empty display of virtuosity. Morales nailed every aspect of the piece: lightning-fast runs, a wide dynamic range down to a ghostly whisper, and smooth connections between registers, even across vast leaps. The Adagio movement proved the highlight, dramatic as a mini-opera scene, reaching up to a piercing high A at the climax. The Menuetto, played with daring rapidity, gamboled clownishly.

As a sort of programmed encore, the quintet played Gustavo Tavares’ arrangement of Preludio y Merengue by Cuban-American jazz clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera. Here the strings had much more independent roles than in the Weber, with second violinist Carlos Rubio even scratching his bow behind the bridge to simulate a percussion instrument, perhaps a first for the 1699 “Castelbarco” Strad. This merengue, a Venezuelan variety in 5/4 meter, bounced with a delightful verve, complete with an ensemble foot stomp near the end.

Joaquín Turina’s La oración del torero paints an impressionistic evocation of bullfighters saying their final prayers in a chapel next to the arena. The vivid shouts and chants of the distant spectators came through in the fast sections, contrasted with the hushed intercessions offered by the toreadors. The sound of the four Strads, with mutes on during the latter sections, murmured soulfully, ending on a lush D major chord.

An audience member’s cell phone went off as the group sat down before the final piece, Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 9 (Op. 59, no. 3). It rang so many times that Isaacman-Beck transcribed the ringtone in his head and played it back after it stopped, to resounding laughter. The group’s first violinist then drew forth more radiant E-string tone from the “Betts” in the first movement, playing a virtuosic role on the return of the main theme in the recapitulation.

Scholars generally hear the theme of the slow movement, with its exotic-sounding augmented-second intervals, as taking the place of the Russian themes Beethoven used in the other two “Razumovsky” string quartets of Op. 59. Lewis Lockwood has even gone so far as to identify a Ukrainian folk song alluded to in this movement, but the Dalí Quartet’s interpretation had an almost tango-like quality. Jesús Morales used the intensely pungent pizzicati of the 1699 “Castelbarco” cello to keep the movement pliant and forward-moving.

The Menuetto lilted with a similar impetus, including the rocketing arpeggio motif of the Trio section. In the repeat of the Menuetto, the musicians sweetened and slowed the music slightly, a nostalgic turn that made an apt transition into Beethoven’s enigmatic choice to add a Coda to the movement in the parallel minor. All four musicians shone with brilliant accuracy in the rollicking Finale, a mock-serious fugue that proved a technical tour de force.

In an ingenious tie-in to the German composer’s dazzling contrapuntal display, the quartet offered an encore of the Fuga Criolla by Venezuelan composer Juan Bautista Plaza. Composed in 1932, this short piece is marked “Tempo di Joropo,” in imitation of one of the national dances of Venezuela. Its complex interplay of triple and duple patterns, in an overall meter of 6/8, gave a final Latin folk emphasis to a worthy concert to end the year.

Susan Vita, head of the Library’s music division, announced that the concert series is looking to offer two performances of next year’s Stradivari anniversary concert, since the demand to hear this event is so high.

The Goldmund Quartet performs music by Haydn, Borodin, and Schumann on the matched set of Strads once owned by Niccolò Paganini, 8 p.m. January 12. loc.gov

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