Sunday afternoon at The Conrad, the young Boston based Balourdet Quartet offered a compelling program of Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Major, Op. 59, better known as the First Razumovsky Quartet, Mozart’s D Minor String Quartet, K. 421, and a string quartet titled Strange Machines by the contemporary Canadian-American composer Karim Al-Zand. Displaying a transparent, impeccably balanced sonority propelled by unstinting ebullience, the Balourdet players confidently refreshed the familiar repertory and gave inviting currency to Al-Zand’s clever piece from 2022.
I missed the Balourdet Quartet when they participated in La Jolla SummerFest 2021, playing on three different days the short Musical Prelude that is offered prior to certain regular SummerFest concerts. So Sunday’s quite complete program presented on the La Jolla Music Society’s Discovery Series marked Balourdet’s more full-fledged San Diego debut, and I was glad to have been present.
I was impressed with cellist Russell Houston’s soulful yet uplifting account of the Razumovsky Quartet’s first movement opening theme, quickly taken up with fervor by first violinist Angela Bae. With their colleagues violinist Justin DeFillippis and violist Benjamin Zannoni, they handled the composer’s exhaustive development of this theme throughout this opening “Allegro” with rewardingly refined passion. Music theorists have to stand on their heads describing how the episodic second movement, “Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando,” conforms to sonata form, but the players appeared to delight pursuing with crystalline definition its adventurous wild escapades. In the “Adagio molto e mesto,” violinist Bae’s aptly elegaic opening theme was answered by yet another warm, ingratiating cello solo from Houston, and the rousing finale, “Thème Russe: Allegro,” bloomed under the string players’ exuberant prowess.
Composed for the Balourdet Quartet, Karim Al-Zand’s String Quartet No. 4 Strange Machines lands somewhere between a very clever three-part etude and a practical joke. The composer describes the opening movement “Alberti Machine” as a “steampunk music box” exploding with variations of that omnipresent cliche of 18th-century accompaniments, the Alberti bass figure, that Balourdet players are required to deploy with every string technique from bright pizzicato to sleek bowing. In “Goldberg Machine,” the second movement, Al-Zand takes the contrapuntal expertise of J. S. Bach (yes, we all recall his Goldberg) and tosses it to Rube Goldberg to watch it implode. The final movement, “Mannheim Machine,” plays havoc the Mannheim Rocket–a cliche from early symphonic music. Balourdet gleefully dispensed with this movement and its dizzying whirring crescendos.
Mozart reserved the key of D minor for his more serious undertakings; it is, for the example the key of his mighty Requiem. The Balourdet Quartet gave Mozart’s String Quartet in D Minor, K. 421, a most serious, probing account to open this concert. For their encore, they chose the final movement of Haydn’s Quartet in C Major, Op. 33, No. 3.
This concert was presented by the La Jolla Music Society on its Discovery Series on Sunday, February 4, 2024, in La Jolla’s Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center.