In performance: Fessenden Ensemble
Noted for its enterprising programs of both rarely heard and established music, the Fessenden Ensemble consists of musicians from the National Symphony Orchestra, the Washington National Opera Orchestra and other local musical organizations. Performing at St. Columba's Episcopal Church on Tuesday, an engaging string quartet from the Ensemble brought new insight into two staples of the repertoire by Borodin and Tchaikovsky. Written only a decade apart, both pieces voice the melancholic breadth of the Russian steppes but in entirely different ways.
Borodin's Quartet No. 2 in D fared well in Tuesday's performance. The musicians clarified its Chopinesque lyricism in a delicately woven texture of intertwining melodic threads. The Fessenden captured the first movement's fleeting sense of spontaneous improvisation and energy while the scherzo, an enchanting waltz, echoed the sprightly gait that Mendelssohn so often indulged in. Cellist Mark Evans lent a brooding languor to the solos of the nocturne, which has suffered from a surplus of modern arrangements.
While the Borodin evokes an element of personal nostalgia, Tchaikovsky's Quartet No. 2, Op. 11 (also in D), seems to imply a certain distance, despite all its thrusting momentum. On Tuesday, the players brought to light both of those leanings -- not always the case with other quartets. But the Fessenden members were absolutely attentive to one another, assuring that both Tchaikovsky's relatively abstract stance and moments of outright passion came to the surface. All in all, the group's deeply resonant timbres and sense of balance were calibrated just right for music so entrenched in late romanticism. St. Columba's buoyant acoustics helped.