Strong Independent ‘Voices’ Come Together as the Stradivari Quartet

27/01/2016

Mozart, Janáček and Brahms: Stradivari Quartet (Xiaoming Wang & Sebastian Bohren [violins], Lech Antonio Uszynski [viola], Maja Weber [cello], Kings Place, London, 24. 1.2016 (CS)

Mozart: String Quartet in Bb K.589
Janáček: String Quartet No.2 (Intimate Letters)
Brahms: String Quartet in Bb Op.67

I had not heard the Swiss/German-based Stradivari Quartet perform before I attended this Kings Place/London Chamber Music Society Sunday evening concert, and thus I was eager to discover how the Aurea and King George violins, the Gibson viola and the Bonamy Dobree-Suggia cello – instruments by Antonio Stradivarius loaned to the Quartet by the Habisreutinger Foundation – would come together in ensemble.  Moreover, given that not only are their instruments among the finest in the world, but the four members of the Quartet also all have esteemed independent solo and orchestral careers, playing with some of Europe’s most renowned ensembles including the Tonhalle Orchestra and Zurich Opera House Orchestra, I wondered how such strong independent ‘voices’ would find unity of expression.  In the event, I was impressed by quartet-playing that was notable for its consistency of idiom and character, and I was astonished at times by the clarity of the multi-layered textures created.  That said, occasionally I found that as the individual lines moved from foreground to background, their strongly delineated identities made competing claims on my attention; and that the result was less of a ‘whole’, than a vivid combination of parts.

The programme presented three late works, by Mozart, Janáček and Brahms.  The Stradivari Quartet released a recording of Mozart’s three ‘Prussian’ Quartets of 1789-90 in November 2015 (review) – the ‘nickname’ derived from Mozart’s intention to dedicate the quartets to the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II though only three of the planned six quartets were completed before the composer’s premature death the following year. The ease and lyricism of their playing suggested a comfortable familiarity with this music, and a shared appreciation of the ‘arguments’ its sometimes complex forms articulate.

The Allegro began in relaxed fashion – almost in media res – the theme in the upper parts airy and clean, the cello entry initiating a wavering prefatory motif which was then itself exchanged among the voices.  Perhaps there might have been a little more warmth to the tone, but the development section, given strong direction by the cello, gained in richness as the harmonic explorations took unexpected turns, and the vigorous triplets were nimbly played, especially by leader Xiaoming Wang who became increasingly assertive.  Maja Weber’s sotto voce cello theme shaped a beautiful cantilena line at the start of the Larghetto – the upper register of the Bonamy Dobree-Suggia sang eloquently – while the gentle busyness in the middle strings generated persuasive forward movement.  Assuming the melodic mantle, Wang extended the theme through rapidly spiralling figuration which then spread to all the voices: the rhythmic precision, sharp delineating of each of the parts and overall ensemble was impressive.

The Menuetto: Moderato opened in grandiose fashion, with a strikingly strong chord, before the first violin danced its stately theme.  Dynamic contrasts and poised phrasing suggested nobility and stature, but I felt that the humour of Mozart’s writing – as embodied, for example, by the viola’s playful semi-quaver interjections – was lacking at times.  The bariolage of the Trio whipped up a storm, though; there was a thrilling sense of drama – of pent-up forces struggling to break free – as the first violin climbed high through the crescendo which closes the first section, a crescendo which is immediately subdued by the lower strings rocking motif – a motif which is itself disturbed by chromatic leanings underpinned by sforzando challenges.  This unrest culminated in a tense silence, but the Allegro assai was carefree and blithe, the complexities of the rhythmic interplay effortlessly despatched.  And, despite the rapid runs of semi-quavers, the movement retained its essential lyricism and grace.

The strength of the Stradivari’s interpretation and performance of Leoš Janáček’s Second String Quartet was the profundity and intensity of the emotional drama that was so fiercely communicated.  Subtitled Intimate Letters, the work embodies the spirit and passion expressed in the hundreds of letters that the elderly composer wrote to the young Kamila Stösslová, with whom he had fallen obsessively in love, and the Stradivari’s playing evoked myriad sentiments and arguments, shining a penetrating light on a private world.  The players’ technical prowess enabled them to deliver every detail of the demanding score – double stopping, decorative gestures, pizzicato devices – with pin-point precision and clarity.  In the most dense, complicated passages, I discovered tiny gestures and details that I had not previously heard; even at the moments of greatest fury, the Stradivari’s control was so assured that lucidity and definition were never sacrificed to fervour.

Lech Antonio Uszynski introduced the viola’s guiding theme, at the start of the Andante con moto, with combined sweetness and gravity, and the viola was a centrifuging voice throughout.  The contrasts between ethereality, sensuousness fullness of tone and quasi-brutality were thrilling and there was a strong sense of an underlying current propelling the mosaic-patterns forward.   The power of Wang’s high E-string discursions in this opening movement was spellbinding; and I’ve never heard the furious repetitive patterning of the score articulated with such transparency.  Then, in the Adagio: Vivace it was second violinist Sebastian Bohren’s turn to make a strong impact.  After a fraught silence, the final five bars of the movement were both a desperate assertion and a confident lyrical utterance, Bohren’s repeated motif tantalisingly ‘snatched’ away.

In the third movement – Moderato. Adagio. Allegro – the players achieved a satisfying balance between the competing arguments, the cello providing a sure centre of gravity.  As the first violin’s melody strove ever higher, the chordal confrontations and the music’s pulsing aggression were unsettling, though occasionally the ensemble ‘slipped’, perhaps forgivably, as a result of the players’ total commitment to the musical material.  The final Andante-Allegro-Adagio made simultaneously beguiling and cynical use of the folk material from which it derives. Again, the players’ technical assurance impressed – the viola’s string crossings, the second violin’s fraught trills, the scurrying freneticism of all four parts, were all expertly negotiated – and the Stradivari moved convincingly between moods.

Janáček wrote – perhaps in self-delusion – to his Muse, ‘Our life is going to be in [this piece] … I composed the first movement as my impression when I saw you for the first time … Kamila, it will be beautiful, strange, unrestrained, inspired, a composition beyond all … It’s my first composition that sprang directly from things remembered; this piece was written in fire.’  There was plenty of fire in this performance; and also a sense of relentless pursuit, then of desperation, and finally of resignation.  But, I still felt that, at the final reckoning, the individual players’ impressive individual contributions did not quite cohere to express the sentiments of a single soul’s longing.

Brahms’s final string quartet, the Third Quartet in B flat, Op.67, formed the last item in the programme.  For me this was the Stradivari’s least convincing interpretation.  The players adopted a uniformly wide vibrato which diminished the work’s at times satirical tone, though the music’s joy and sense of freedom was well-conveyed, and the motivic density was explicated.  The recapitulation of the opening Vivace brought freshness and frankness.  The Andante was persuasively lyrical, and lulled us, like a heartfelt song.   The rhythmic dynamism and conflict of the Agitato third movement, was enhanced by the vibrancy of the cello’s pizzicato arguments which enlivened the strong viola theme; the instruments seemed to embody contrasting yet complementary ‘personalities’.  The theme-and-variations finale grew impressively, the dramatic tension controlled and then released in the later variations.

As a postscript, I should say that I was a little disconcerted by the Stradivari’s use of electronic, rather than hard copy, parts.  As a ‘Luddite’ who resists the intrusion of technological devices into real human or sensory interaction (no mobile/smart phone, no television, no social media, no e-books), it was interesting for me to reflect on the benefits of ‘no page turns’ versus the loss of the spatial/structural relationships that paper copies of the parts might elucidate.  Whatever my predilections, it will be interesting to see how practitioners’ preferences evolve in the coming months and years.

Claire Seymour

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