The Parker Quartet — Image via

Beethoven & Schulhoff

The Parker Quartet

Thursday evening’s concert at the MacPhail Center for Music, the last in the Parker Quartet‘s 2012-13 All Hearts Listen series, featured two familiar pieces by Beethoven separated by a virtually unknown piece by early 20th Century Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff. But in all three pieces, the group demonstrated the same level of commitment to bringing the audience something new.

Beethoven’s early quartets have long suffered from not being Beethoven’s late quartets. Next to the demented genius of the latter, the mere garden-variety brilliance of the former is easily overlooked. The Parkers avoided that trap in their performance of the sixth quartet, displaying the piece’s experimental and forward-thinking aspects. In particular, they suffused the slow second movement with a sense of mystery, working through Beethoven’s music in an almost tentative fashion.

Like many composers of his time, Schulhoff incorporated a wide range of styles into his compositions, including folk music, jazz (or at least what passed for jazz in Europe), and the latest avant-garde developments out of Vienna. His first string quartet references all of these, and the Parkers gave a committed performance. Highlights included the viola-heavy second movement — rendered, as the composer requested, “with grotesque melancholy” — and the atonal last movement.

The final piece on the program was Beethoven’s 10th quartet, the Harp. Here, the standouts were the quartet’s sharply accented performances of the first movement — with its pizzicato episodes that give the piece its nickname — and the driving, skittering scherzo. Throughout the quartet, as in the other pieces on the program, the group’s playing was carefully coordinated but never wooden, each player giving expressive emphasis to his or her part without muddying the clarity of the piece as a whole.

This was the Parker Quartet’s first performance with new second violinist Ying Xue, though without being told, one might have thought she had been playing with the group for years. Before the concert, another new development was announced; after being based in the Twin Cities for several years, the quartet is relocating to Boston. Given the audience they have built locally through their exceptional performances, one assumes — and hopes — they will make many trips back.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.