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The UW-Milwaukee resident ensemble performs Beethoven's greatest quartet, along with music of Haydn and Samuel Barber.

Introducing the Fine Arts Quartet’s concert Sunday afternoon, cellist Robert Cohen said the program would feature works with striking contrasts — dark and light, innovation and tradition. I doubt anyone in the Zelazo Center audience could argue with that, particularly after the final notes of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 echoed through the hall.

Opening its final season of concerts as Artists-in-Residence at UW-Milwaukee, the quartet tackled the monumental challenges of Beethoven’s greatest quartet (by almost universal consensus) with relaxed, almost playful ease. In contrast with Beethoven’s other late-career quartet masterpiece, the strange and cerebral Grosse Fugue, this quartet is a whirlwind tour of styles and emotions that range from deep introspection (Wagner called the first movement “the saddest thing ever said in notes”) to almost childlike playfulness.

The Fine Arts Quartet.

And so it was. The first movement offered an interesting contrast to Samuel Barber’s “adagio,” which preceded the Beethoven on the program — searching, almost as modern. Then, easing into the second movement, it slowly embraced the spirit of a carefree dance with a driving dotted rhythm. There were more striking contrasts in the 40-minute piece, played without pauses between the sections. Ralph Evans’s lead violin added delicate filigrees, Cohen’s cello dug in to the ostinato of the stately Piu Mosso. The quartet perfectly orchestrated the witty exchanges in which a short phrase or plucked chord is passed along from one instrument to another, like a musical game of telephone. And it skittered away in the frenetic, joyful Presto. Those in the audience who remember Edo de Waart’s final performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony last spring had a bit of déjà vu hearing this concert. Like the Mahler, in it’s own small way, Beethoven’s 14th aspires to be “like the world,” containing everything.

The quartet opened with two other iconic works, beginning with Haydn’s “Sunrise” quartet (Op. 76, No 4). Here, the approach was matter-of-face rather than romantic, but it yielded beautiful playing and highlighted the surprising turns in the music. The adagio, in particular, had a powerful sense of space, with substantive silences opening up between the notes.

Barber’s Quartet, Op. 11, is famous for its often-played “adagio,” but heard in its entirety, it’s easy to feel poignant serenity of the adagio’s shifting harmonic language. The first movement was full of driving unison lines that sprung into glowing harmonies, introducing a chorale-like interlude before a delicate, driving rhythm takes over. The quartet built these disparate parts into a cohesive whole and offered a stirring and satisfying reading of a 20th century masterpiece.

The quartet concludes its 55-year residence at UWM with a pair of concerts on Jan. 27 and 28, featuring guest artists Gil Sharon and Niklas Schmidt.

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