There is no shortage of “all too brief” lives in the history of classical music: Mozart, of course, who died at 35. But also Franz Schubert, dead at age 31. And George Gershwin, Frederic Chopin and Vincenzo Bellini—all dead before age forty. But its hard to imagine a more tragic “what if” than the life of Juan Crisóstomo Jacobo Antonio de Arriaga y Balzola, typically known as Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga, who died in 1826, just short of his 20th birthday.
A taste of Arriaga’s brilliant potential opened an enchanting concert Sunday night by the Fine Arts Quartet at UWM’s Zelazo Hall. His third string quartet, published when he was only 16, is one of the great pleasures of 19th-century music: elegant, playful and lyrically rich (no wonder he was called the Spanish Mozart). And the FAQ—performing with “interim” violist Juan-Miquel Hernandez—played it with dazzling ease. It offered a great vehicle for first violinist Ralph Evans and cellist Robert Cohen, who spend much of the piece trading motifs, playing similar melodies with contrasting timbres—Evans sweet, almost flute-like tones set against Cohen’s ringing and deep sonorities.
There was a more sophisticated brilliance in the concert closer, Felix Mendelssohn’s D-Major Quartet from 1838 (also a product of youthful exuberance from a composer who died before he turned forty). Mendelssohn’s approach here is fuller and more orchestral, and as Cohen pointed out in some brief comments from the stage, the quartet is filled with material inspired by some of Mendelssohn’s most famous orchestral pieces. The FAQ sounded quite symphonic in the opening movement—they seized the infectious rhythms (lots of dotted quarter rhythms here) with rapid bow work and they closed phrases with sharply bitten off cadences. And while the ensemble gelled here, this is definitely a feature—a chamber concerto, of sorts—for the first violin. Evans played it with both spirit and elegance.
The grand old man of the evening was Anton Bruckner, represented by his only quartet, written in 1862. Here, as one might expect, the sonorities are darker, the mood less ebullient. But there was richness and delicacy here, and the quartet found an earthy depth here that offered a fitting contrast to the airiness of Arriaga’s youthful energy.
The quartet returns in two weeks for the third program of its summer series, performing pieces by Mozart, Strauss and Tchaikovsky, with guests Gil Sharon and Alexander Hulshoff.