Fort Worth — The Atrium Quartet made a most welcome return to the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth series on Nov. 11. The quartet is based in Munich and was founded in 2000 by St. Petersburg Conservatory students who were assembled by Professor Josef Levinson (uncle of CMSFW artistic director Gary Levinson).
When they were here a few years ago they were impressive, but this time they were superlative.
This year they are traveling with a new concertmaster, Nikita Boriso-Glebsky. He first came to notice in 2010 when he won the International Jean Sibelius Violin competition, followed by a triumph in the International Fritz Kreisler Violin competition. The other and equally fine players remain the same: Dmitry Pitulko, viola; Anton Ilyunin, violin; and Anna Gorelova, cello.
The program consisted of two number twos: Brahms’ String Quartet No. 2 and Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 2, Op. 18. Both are well known and beloved works. The Atrium delivered a superb performance of both. In between, before intermission, they sandwiched in Shostakovich’s weird String Quartet No. 12.
The Shostakovich is a strange piece because it marks one of the composer’s forays into 12-tone technique. He writes it in D-flat major, five flats in the key signature, but the opening cello solo is a tone row filled with accidentals to negate the key signature. It is this odd combination of totality and atonality that makes this quartet hard to decipher. The Atrium did as fine a job as you will ever hear, but it is not a piece that will send you running to buy a recording of it.
Rather than continue with a list of superlatives about the performance of these pieces, it is probably better to discuss the one thing that the Atrium does better than any other string quartet that I have heard recently.
On listening to the Beethoven, which opened the program, I was struck by the remarkable clarity of the performance. Of course, they have impeccable ensemble and intonation as well as a unity of concept. This is not uncommon with touring string quartets that play together constantly. What is different here is the uncanny degree of clarity that they achieve.
All four voices were easily discernible all the way through their performances on all three works, yet not even one stuck out. Solo lines rose out of the musical soup and then returned, but the other voices were also easily discerned. Even when they were all playing the same passage, even in octaves, we could hear all four voices.
They make it seem like the listener has the score right in front of them. This is a level of clarity that you would think is nearly impossible to realize. As the concert progressed, I tried to understand how they achieve this remarkable effect but it remains a mystery.
After the concert I spoke with the players about this and they seemed only marginally aware of what I was talking about, but you can see that it raised their curiosity. Thus, it appears that this aspect of their playing is intrinsic and not studied as are other aspects of their playing, such as the ensemble and intonation.
Perhaps it was something in the stars that afternoon, or the effect of the new concertmaster, but I doubt it. More likely that the Atrium Quartet is a perfect combination of players who have the same understanding of the music and instruments that sound just different enough to allow them to be heard individually. Whatever the reason, it was a remarkable concert and I eagerly await their return.