As is our frequent early evening custom at this time of the year, we were lounging around under the portal outside St. Francis Auditorium during a recent

Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival

intermission. Just finished: the first half of an Orion String Quartet concert concluding their two-year traversal of the Beethoven cycle. A friend casually remarked, “Well, I guess I’ll have to go home and get rid of all my old Beethoven quartets now.”

This is not, repeat, not a plug for the Orion’s CDs. It’s just a way of saying that these are four people who currently play Beethoven better than just about anybody else on the planet. It’s not just that they’ve been a number since 1987 or that Beethoven cycles appear with some regularity on their busy concert schedules. They play with such passion, such delicacy, such deep understanding of these familiar works that listeners can feel they’re hearing them for the first time.

TS Eliot wrote quartets, too. His late collection of four long poems in five sections each,

Four Quartets

, is his masterpiece. In the third of these, “The Dry Salvages,” he writes, “You are the music while the music lasts.” That just about sums up the Orion’s Beethoven. Forget about the notes, the dynamics, the tempo markings; while each quartet unfolds, the Orion is the music.

Their final concert of the cycle included the

Op. 18


No. 6


Op. 95

, the “Serioso,” in exemplary readings. After the aforementioned intermission, the concert finished with

Op. 130

and its original “Grosse Fuge” finale. Neither performers nor audiences “got” this hair-raising finale at its 1826 premiere; Beethoven replaced it with an innocuous rondo, his last completed work. I’m not sure that even we “get” it today, or if it’s to be “gotten” at all. It’s the most Bergian work composed before Alban. At its feverish emotional climax, the Orions taught us a thing or two about schreklichkeit, a handy term for over-the-top scariness. After their ethereal reading of the preceding Adagio molto expressivo movement, they played this demonic finale like a quartet possessed.

About this time every season the SFCMF concert venue moves, for most programs, from St. Francis Auditorium to the Lensic Theater. There are plusses: it’s bigger with more seats to sell. And those velvety seats are far, far, more comfortable than the cramped monastic pews at St. Francis. There are minuses, too: I miss the Auditorium’s bright, forward acoustic. Case in point—the Mozart

Sonata No. 21


K. 304

, that opened last Thursday’s concert. Violinist Todd Phillips played energetically. Marc Neikrug made a stylish accompanist. But balance was off, at least to these ears, with a too-distant piano sound.

Something similar happened with that concert’s closing work—Ernst von Dohnányi’s rarely heard

Piano Quintet, Op. 26

. Pianist Jon Nakamatsu never quite connected with the strings: violinists Daniel Phillips and Benny Kim, violist Steve Tenenbom and cellist Eric Kim. Don’t shoot the piano player. Nakamatsu and quartet played persuasively in the grandly-scaled, dense-textured opening movement, half-way between Brahms and Verklärte Nacht. The middle Allegretto sandwiches a vivacious Magyar-tinted section between repetitions of a lightly brooding waltz that might be at home among the potted palms. The finale, after an unsettling theme from the cello, sweeps with passion to a bittersweet coda.

The evening’s third work, Ravel’s

Sonata for Violin and Cello

, with violinist Benny Kim and cellist Timothy Eddy sitting well forward on the Lensic stage, had no acoustic problems. It’s a challenging work, far less “accessible” than any other of Ravel’s few chamber works. Kim and Eddy presented its astringent linearity to perfection.

Nothing astringent, though, about Saturday Aug. 16 all-Handel concert. After humdrum readings of three sonatas (violin, then oboe, then violin plus oboe) notable chiefly for the skillful continuo of cellist Timothy Eddy and harpsichordist Kathleen McIntosh, the program moved to its daring main event: the 1709 secular “continuo” cantata,

La Lucrezia

. The work is a 20 minute monodrama for soprano based on a familiar tale: the rape of chaste Roman matron, Lucretia, by the brutal Etruscan prince, Sextus Tarquinius. In her shame and dishonor, Lucretia kills herself.

But not, in Handel’s cantata, before demanding divine vengeance, both heavenly and infernal, in a series of recitatives and arias that make immense vocal as well as dramatic demands upon the singer. That’s the first part of the SFCMF’s programmatic dare. The double-dare is that any singer undertaking the role stands in the shadow of the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, whose Lucretia, along with Dido and Phèdre, ranks high among her unforgettable tragic heroines.

Isabel Leonard’s Lucretia is entirely her own. Currently singing the Santa Fe Opera’s hormonal


, Leonard portrays the furious, pathetic Lucretia with passionate intensity and remarkable vocal beauty. Handel’s cantata demands that its singer enact an emotional portrait ranging from bitter outrage to blank despair, expressed both in florid passagework and long-drawn, tragic legato phrases. Isabel Leonard’s anguished portrayal ranks among the SFCMF’s finest-ever vocal presentations.