Quatuor Mosaiques at Wigmore Hall, London
April 11, 2011
Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven: Quatuor Mosaiques, Wigmore Hall, London, 2.4 11. (GD)
Haydn: String Quartet in Bflat, Op.76 No.4 ‘Sunrise’
Mozart: String Quartet in D K575
Beethoven: String Quartet in F Op.18 No.1
The Quatuour Mosaiques are arguably the most celebrated ‘period’ quartet today. The French cellist Christophe Coin and the three other Mosaiques musicians knew each other when they were all members of Harnoncourt’s Concentus Musicus of Vienna; and, as a quartet that specialises in the ‘classical’ tradition, they were also inspired by the famous Vegh Quartet. Although many modern quartets adopt a more ‘lean’ sounding tone, emphasising clarity and detail, with minimum vibrato, etc., the Mosaiques, with their period instruments, and period style of playing, excel in producing a general tone which corresponds to known period ‘classical’ playing techniques while at the same time offering a general tonal range which is meticulous in detail, but also diverse in terms of harmonic warmth and lyrical contrast.
Tonight’s concert, as with all the Quartet’s concerts, was well programmed, offering us the opportunity to engage with all the similarities and contrasts of these three masterpieces from the ‘classical’ tradition, with two ‘late’ mature works from Haydn and Mozart, and Beethoven’s ‘first’ published work in the quartet sonata form.
The nickname ‘Sunrise’ for Haydn’s Op. 76 No. 4 was not used by Haydn, but later ascribed to the work, and relates to the broad violin theme that rises slowly upwards during its opening bars. But Haydn never follows a predictable course. The opening theme is inverted in the second subject leading to the development section, which takes the form of a descending contour initiated by the cello over a pedal in the other three instruments intoning the same opening ‘Sunrise’ theme. All this was managed with meticulous attention to detail and various tonal shifts, while projecting the ‘sublime’ inspiration of Haydn’s invention with compelling unity. The Adagio in E flat major, with its three-part improvisation on a five-note motif, unfolded beautifully. And the contrast with the slightly ‘baroque’, sounding minuet, with its ‘.Balkan’-style trio, was compellingly realised. The finale, with its ‘contredanse’ themes, and striking minor key middle section, concluded a performance in which scrupulous attention to detail never lost sight of the coherent unity. Throughout tonight’s concert the Mosaiques were generous with the customary repeats
It is amazing to realise that Mozart’s D Major Quartet K 575 was actually written eight years before the previously played Haydn quartet in 1789. It inhabits a totally new, less baroque, world. Whereas Haydn’s work takes pleasure in revealing its content, its generally noble, but congenial, mood, Mozart’s quartet is famously ‘sphinx’ like. Behind the ‘smooth’ harmonies and symmetrical euphony there is a more troubled mood. This was apparent in the way the Moaiques slightly inflected the detached quavers at the start of the development in B minor, casting a shadow over the following G major melody. The beautiful Andante in A major (one of Mozart’s favourite ‘late’ tonal registers) unfolded naturally, with the cello line – written with the cello playing Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm II in mind (hence the nickname ”Prussian’ for the trio of quartets to which K 575 belongs) making its voice felt, although never sounding ‘detached’.
The tonal ruptures in the second half of the menuetto, were emphasised as a contrast to the gentle play of the trio with its cello embellishments for the King’s delight. The final Allegretto was a joy. Not least in its many allusions to counterpoint and minor key departures, all lying beneath the initial mood of D major radiance. The Mosaiques seem to relish these ambiguities, tensions, contrasts, as in the dissonances passing from F major to B minor, after the quasi-contrapuntal development section. After this performance of a masterpiece which is still relatively little played, I made a mental note to play the whole trio of ‘Prussian’ quartets – in the recordings by the Mosaiques, of course.
Beethoven’s Op. 18, No. 1 Quartet in F major is now thought to actually be the second work in the six Op.18 quartets. It has always beeen seen through the prism of a brilliant young composer making his mark as the heir of Haydn and Mozart, being deeply indebted to both these ‘great men’ – as Beethoven called them. This is of course mostly accurate, although right from the very opening terse phrase, without the first violin, the Mosaiques emphasised the work as more dramatic, even a shade more rough in tone than the refinement particularly of the Mozart quartet. So although Beethoven was undoubtedly working in the shadow of his illustrious predecessors, he is already developing a new musical language. One feature of the first movement, with its turns to a harmonic range of fifths as far as G flat major, is the rather abrupt omission of the development and recapitulation repeat, which had been customary with the two older composers. The Mosaiques proved that, although they are a ‘period’ ensemble, they are fully able to produce a full, dramatic sonority as in the second movement’s throbbing triplets with the first violin intoning a a broad and intense melody in which Beethoven had been inspired by the tomb scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The witty,’ rumbunctious’ scherzo, and the exhilarating finale, with its sudden switches to remote keys like B major, and its thematic, unifying link up with second subject of the first movement, was executed with fire, conviction, and a nuanced awareness of every mood and detail. This was a wonderfully uplifting chamber concert.
As a brief, but delightful, encore the Mosaiques gave a typically spirited and humorous rendition of the lively scherzo from Schubert’s early Quartet in E flat, D.87.