Elegance and Artistic Revelations from the Modigliani Quartet

23/11/2016

Mozart, Schumann, Dvořák: Modigliani Quartet (Guillaume Sutre & Loïc Rio [violins], Laurent Marfaing [viola], François Kieffer [cello]), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 17.11.2016. (BJ)

Mozart – String Quartet in D major, K.575

Schumann – String Quartet in A major, Op.41o.3

Dvořák – String Quartet in F major, Op.96, “American”

For four young musicians who come together as friends, building their friendship into one of the world’s great string quartets is a formidable and surely exhausting task. It is a task that the Modigliani Quartet has fulfilled with phenomenal success since its foundation 13 years ago, but now the ensemble’s first violinist, Philippe Bernhardt, has decided to call it a day, at least temporarily. Pending the arrival next month of Amaury Coeytaux as his successor, the first-violin chair was occupied for this Philadelphia Chamber Music Society Concert by Guillaume Sutre, first violinist of the Ysaÿe Quartet for nearly 20 years until it was disbanded in 2014.

With admirable skill and discretion, Sutre contrived to fit very convincingly into the Modigliani’s artistic identity, which I have previously described in these virtual pages as possessing “characteristics of tone sufficiently varied from one to another yet blending perfectly.” Further, “It takes an ensemble like the Modigliani Quartet to remind one that, rather like the more elite denizens of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, some quartets are more in tune than others…There is a world of difference between ‘around the note’ and ‘smack in the middle of it.’”

The quartet’s variety of tone color contributed on this occasion to sensitive and cogent accounts of all three works. The Mozart was crisply elegant and melodically beguiling, the Schumann impassioned without exaggeration, and the Dvořák infectious in its countrified rhythmic zest. Interpretative ideas seemed to emerge from all four of the players in turn, if perhaps with a preponderance coming from Laurent Marfaing—not inappropriately, if we remember that the viola was Dvořák’s instrument, and also the one Mozart preferred to play in quartets, because he liked “to be in the middle of the harmony.”

When the official program ended, we were treated to an encore in the generous form of Webern’s Slow Movement. I have to confess that, though I have written about this free-standing 10-minute work more than once, I had never realized quite what a gorgeous piece it can be in the right hands. The Modiglianis fashioned it into a magical edifice of interwoven glistening lines, reaching achingly up toward the empyrean. This was one encore that was nothing short of a revelation.

Bernard Jacobson

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