When the Parker Quartet formed in 2002, it played Beethoven’s second “Razumovsky” String Quartet frequently without ever feeling it had plumbed its deepest secrets.
The quartet’s first violinist Daniel Chong shared that information Friday evening with the audience at the Minnesota Beethoven Festival in Winona before his quartet played the work again.
In the 15 years since “Razumovsky 2” last sat on its music stands, the quartet has won a Grammy and evolved into a world-class chamber group.
Their accumulated experience cut through palpably in a performance of riveting structural clarity and uncompromising frankness of expression.
It’s tempting to round off sharp corners in the second “Razumovsky” and tame the sometimes wildly speculative questions it asks about the expressive parameters of the string quartet format.
The Parker Quartet resisted simplification, however. The jerky, inconclusive rhythms of the Allegretto movement were etched with the sharpness of a draftsman's pencil and seemed unsettling rather than eccentric.
The weird instability of the dance tune launching the Presto finale was also vividly communicated. The music promises unbridled celebration but never embraces it fully. That ambivalence was unflinchingly caught in the Parker Quartet’s outstandingly insightful interpretation.
Beethoven’s Op. 18, No. 6 Quartet is an earlier, less enigmatic piece, and it opened the concert. The opening movement had both a tensile energy and a sense of elegance, showing again how skillfully the Parker Quartet accommodates potentially contradictory elements in Beethoven’s music.
The segue from the graceful, Haydnesque opening of the slow movement to its more inward-looking central section was seamlessly facilitated by cellist Kee-Hyun Kim, whose range of touch and nuance were an education all evening.
Due weight was given to the introspective melancholy of the finale’s long opening section, before the coiled energy of the music was released in a brilliant, fizzing account of its exuberant conclusion.
Between the Beethoven quartets came a much less familiar work, the String Quartet No. 2 of 20th century Polish composer Karol Szymanowski.
The silken tone of Parker Quartet leader Chong dominated the opening movement, his violin floating rhapsodically over a hushed, ethereal accompaniment.
Behind the platform at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, tugboats and barges could be seen through picture windows, gliding by silently on the Mississippi. The juxtaposition with Szymanowski’s otherworldly music was surreal and had a momentary magic.
The violent, slicing gestures of the second movement Scherzo blew the dream away, as Szymanowski injected powerful folk music elements from the Tatra Mountains region of his native Poland.
The multiple lightning strikes delivered in the music were dispatched with supreme technical confidence by the musicians in an edge-of-seat performance.
Despite the Parker Quartet’s strong connections with Minnesota — the group has held resident positions at the University of Minnesota, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and at Minnesota Public Radio — this was its first appearance at the Minnesota Beethoven Festival.
From the rousing reception the quartet received from a packed Winona audience, it was obvious they would be welcomed back anytime.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.