PORTLAND — I went to the DaPonte String Quartet concert Saturday at the State Street Church to hear the phenomenal “Intimate Letters” Quartet No. 2 (1928) by the Czech composer Leos Janacek. Although sandwiched between an early Mozart and a great Beethoven quartet, it stood up very well.

The Mozart String Quartet in C Major (KV 170), written when he was 17 years old and imitating Haydn, had many of the defects of youth but was unmistakably his own. For the most part, it was beautifully obvious, but not without a few characteristic surprises. As the DaPonte played it, the sound was surprisingly full.

The Beethoven String Quartet in F Major, Opus 59, No. 1, the first of the “Rasumowsky” quartets, is one of the masterpieces of the literature, about which everything possible has already been said, except perhaps that it’s too long.

As cadence followed tantalizing cadence, the couple in front of me began shaking their heads in amusement. But once it is accepted that the music is not going to end, it reveals new beauties at every turn. The DaPonte paid both passion and attention to detail throughout – surprising, considering their workout in the Janacek that preceded it.

The main event left nothing to be desired, interpreting Janacek’s strange, attractive and sometimes disturbing musical language to perfection.

The first and fourth movements of the quartet deal with actual incidents during a hopeless romance between the composer and a married woman 38 years his junior, expressed in 700 or so intimate letters. The second and third are a fantasy of consummation, followed by a lullaby for a son who never was.

The second movement should not be played in mixed company. The third is as much a masterpiece as Beethoven’s, combining a Slavic-sounding melody and the cadences of a mother’s voice, contrasted with rude interruptions from the outside world that cannot penetrate the spell.

Throughout the work, the viola, played by Kirsten Monke, takes the role of the composer’s love, Kamila, depicting her emotions, speech patterns, accents and pitch changes as if an actual person were reciting a poem.

Although in real life, Janacek would be represented by the second fiddle, in the quartet he is played by the first violin – in this case, Lydia Forbes, whose interaction with the viola was an opera without words.

The fourth movement is crowded with incidents, from witnessing a peasant dance through a ride in a horse-drawn carriage to the most violent thunderstorm ever portrayed by a string quartet.

It all hangs together, but the images and snatches of haunting melody make one entirely forget the form. Three cheers for unrequited love.


Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at:

[email protected]


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