BRUNSWICK — Every summer, the Bowdoin International Music Festival presents a large and varied selection of the classical repertory – favorites as well as rarities – in concerts performed by both its starry faculty and the students the festival attracts from around the world, as well as master classes, lectures and a healthy infusion of contemporary works.

Within that schedule, the Monday evening concerts by some of today’s finest string quartets is one of the festival’s biggest draws, particularly on nights when two of the featured ensembles collaborate, as the Ying Quartet and the Jupiter String Quartet did at Studzinksi Recital Hall on Monday.

Both are long-established groups that produce a big tone and have demonstrated a curiosity about neglected corners of the repertory. They were also both formed by siblings: In the Ying Quartet, violinist Janet Ying and the Bowdoin festival’s joint artistic directors, violist Philip Ying and cellist David Ying, are joined by violinist Robin Scott (whose seat was held by Timothy Ying until 2009). The Jupiter includes two sisters, Meg and Liz Freivogel, a violinist and violist, respectively, as well as cellist Daniel McDonough (who is married to Meg) and violinist Nelson Lee.

On Monday, the two groups’ sounds and programming interests meshed nicely, although only one of the works on the program, Shostakovich’s “Two Pieces for String Octet” (Op. 11), used the ensembles’ full combined forces. The others were Mendelssohn’s String Quintet No. 1 (Op. 18), for which the Jupiter’s violist, Liz Freivogel, joined the Ying Quartet’s full complement, and Dohnányi’s String Sextet in B flat major, for which the Jupiter players were joined by Philip and David Ying.

All three are among their composers’ earliest works and date back to their teenage years, although the Dohnányi requires an asterisk, since he began work on it when he was 17, in 1893, but revised it in 1900, when he was 22. Mendelssohn was 16 when he composed his Quintet, and Shostakovich wrote his octet movements when he was 18.

The early provenance of the Shostakovich explains why its first movement, at least, sounds comparatively carefree – not cheerful, exactly, but without the sense of traumatized embattlement that is the engine of his mature works. It was only a few years after the Russian Revolution; Stalin’s harassment of the composer wouldn’t begin for another dozen years.


But then, it may be that Shostakovich was disposed to tense, dramatic music even before his encounters with Soviet officialdom. Though the opening Prelude is texturally lush, with appealingly chromatic themes and even a few showy touches – most notably, a magnificent, if brief, burst of solo violin virtuosity, executed superbly by Lee – the Scherzo finale is so frenetic and troubled that it sounds as if it were lifted from a much later work. The combined quartets give it a gripping, high-energy reading.

My guess is that many in the audience secretly wished, as I did, that the quartets had programmed Mendelssohn’s popular Octet (Op. 20), rather than the String Quintet No. 1, which was completed around the same time. It’s not that there’s anything unworthy about the Quintet. But the Octet, apart from using both quartets fully, is packed with delicious themes that wash over you almost nonstop.

Still, it’s good to set aside favorites in favor of works that are leaned on less frequently, and it’s not as though the Quintet is monochromatic or tuneless. Mendelssohn had a rich imagination, and this work has its share of singing melodies and hard-driven ensemble writing. There are also similarities in spirit between its nimble Scherzo and its delightful counterpart in the Octet. And if you like the heated sensuality that animates 19thcentury music, the players did a wonderfully unified job of bringing that out.

The Dohnányi Sextet, which was discovered in 2005, is a puzzler. Stylistically, it is all over the place: Its bigger contours are steeped in late Romanticism, as you might expect in a work composed at the very end of the 19thcentury, and you hear tips of the hat to Dvorák, Wagner and Brahms. But there are also passages that look back to Mendelssohn’s time, in the early 19thcentury, and even Mozart’s music of the 1770s and 1780s.

You could argue, of course, that a 17-year old composer should be cut some slack, even if that wasn’t necessary for Mendelssohn and Shostakovich. And indeed, Dohnányi’s own decision to revise the piece, seven years after he wrote it, suggests that he was troubled by its inconsistency as well. It is, unquestionably, an illuminating glance at a master composer in training. It would be hard to imagine it getting a richer, more vigorous reading than the Jupiter and Ying players gave it.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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