LA JOLLA — In the best of all possible worlds, the string quartet is the crucible in which a composer's essential character is revealed. The Vermeer String Quartet brought white-hot passions to its Saturday night concert of Beethoven, Shostakovich and Dvorak, making Sherwood Auditorium the best of all possible musical worlds for an incredibly rich two hours.
Passion, of course, was only part of the Vermeer success story. Eloquence and insight, the ensemble's complementary virtues, contributed significantly to its riveting traversal of the Shostakovich Quartet No. 8 in C Minor.
Arguably an autobiographical portrait of the composer, the dense, five-movement piece composed in 1960 is a relentlessly probing account of struggle and suffering.
From the almost savage, raw energy of the "Allegro molto" to the uncanny stillness of the somber finale, Vermeer enveloped this wide emotional gamut with clean, well-focused playing of utmost conviction. Even though the work ends with two slow movements, this keenly paced performance kept the momentum racing to the somber final chord.
Vermeer began the evening with a less daunting challenge to the audience, Beethoven's early A Major Quartet, Op. 18, No. 5. The four gentlemen from Chicago shaped the quartet with loving respect to its essentially classical architecture, without reducing the emotional quotient to a prettified imitation of Mozart.
Especially in the extended third movement of the Beethoven, each player revealed his strengths. If first violinist Shmuel Ashkenasi led with assertive clarity, he was equally matched by violist Richard Young's powerful phrasing and plangent sonority. Cellist Marc Johnson might have employed a richer timbre for the group's foundation, but he never lacked focus or point in his playing. Violinist Pierre Menard complemented Ashkenasi without merely fading into his shadow.
Perhaps the key to Vermeer's achievement is the ability to balance strong individual characters with an equally compelling ensemble profile.
The group's forte sound may be less than ravishing, but it was always well tuned and charged with urgency. In Dvorak's C Major Quartet, Op. 61, the program's affable, athletic conclusion, Vermeer displayed that it can turn as mellifluous a phrase as the most refined ensembles. But their passion made the indelible impression.