Review: Atrium String Quartet gives spirited Fort Worth performance

Posted 8:34am on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013

The Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth is on a roll. Last month it opened its season with a top-flight ensemble, the Miro String Quartet, and Saturday afternoon it continued with another exceptional group, the Atrium String Quartet.

Joining them in the auditorium of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth for two of the four works on their program was cellist Brinton Averil Smith, an exceptional artist in his own right.

The Atrium Quartet is a youngish group that was formed in St. Petersburg, though it is now based in Berlin. Its members are violinists Alexey Naumenko and Anton Ilyunin, violist Dmitry Putulko and cellist Anna Gorelova. It would be incorrect to call Ilyunin the “second violinist” since the two violinists switched places in mid-program, signifying equality.

Smith is the former principal cellist of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. He now holds that position with the Houston Symphony as well as a faculty position with Rice’s Shepherd School of Music.

All five took to the museum’s playing space for a work of unusual good cheer, Boccherini’s so-called String Quintet in C — “so-called” because it’s really a posthumous collection of four independent pieces joined by someone else long after the composer’s death.

Despite its origins, it works very well as a group. Judging by this work, Boccherini must have been a spiritual brother of Haydn. Both wrote wonderful feel-good music that is often playful and usually reflects a sunny disposition.

The quintet spotlights what I’ll call the first violin and first cello, with the other instruments in supporting roles. Naumenko and Smith were busy throughout the work, displaying remarkable technical skill and transmitting a sense of personality. Smith got what must have been the part played by Boccherini himself (the composer was also a cello virtuoso); the way Smith handled what sounded like very difficult music was awesome.

The quartet, sans Smith, gave a stupendous performance of Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 3. The composer’s string quartets are probably his greatest music, and this work backs that assessment. It starts with a rather jaunty movement but soon sinks to deep emotional depths with music that is sardonic, mysterious and almost always anguished.

The Atrium Quartet, now four equal partners, played as if the piece were in their blood. At the end, many in the audience must have felt a sense of emotional exhaustion.

After intermission, Smith rejoined the quartet for a performance of Alan Shulman’s Threnody, a work originally for string orchestra but played in this case by two violins, one viola and two cellos. Shulman was the father of Laurie Shulman, the respected program annotator for several local musical groups. Before Saturday’s performance she gave the society’s audience some insight into her father’s work.

Threnody, true to its title, was a work of melodic beauty that transmitted a sense of sadness, even anguish. It was good that the intermission separated this work from Shostakovich’s quartet. There was some of the same spirit in each.

An attractive performance of Borodin’s Quartet No. 2 (complete with Kismet tunes) brought the program to a close.

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