Julia Fischer Quartet Play With Meticulousness, Precision and Accord

25/01/2018

 Beethoven, Janáček, Schubert: Julia Fischer Quartet (Julia Fischer & Alexander Sitkovetsky [violins], Nils Mönkmeyer [viola], Benjamin Nyffenegger [cello], Wigmore Hall, London, 24.1.2018. (CS)

Julia Fischer Quartet (c) Irene Zandel

Julia Fischer Quartet (c) Irene Zandel

Beethoven – String Quartet in Eb major Op.74, ‘Harp’
Janáček – String Quartet No.1, ‘Intimate Letters’
Schubert
– String Quartet in A minor D804, ‘Rosamunde’

The four members of the Julia Fischer Quartet, all international soloists in their own right, play with impressive unanimity of purpose and execution.  Throughout this Wigmore Hall recital, the communication between the musicians was concentrated, alert and responsive.  A glance, a slight smile, the merest nod: such gestures confirmed that they were playing to each other as much as to the large audience gathered in the Hall, though they did not neglect to communicate directly to the latter.  The result was music played with meticulousness, precision and accord.  Why, then, did I feel a tad unsatisfied when I left the Hall?

By the time we had reached the end of the final item, Schubert’s ‘Rosamunde’ Quartet, the answer had become a little clearer to me.  The players had given great thought to the manner in which they wished to articulate each motif and phrase, and how to delineate each movement’s structure; and, they executed their intent superbly and with care.  But, the music did not seem to me to ‘sing’ or ‘tell a story’, and this was particularly noticeable in Schubert’s quartet where the melodies, as in all of Schubert’s chamber music, have a vocal quality and might seem to have sprung from the composer’s lieder.  Indeed, the ‘Rosamunde’ alludes, in the first movement, to ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’ and in later movements the composer quotes from ‘Die Götter Griechenlands’, while the quartet’s nickname derives from the Entr’acte that Schubert had composed to the romantic drama Rosamunde, Queen of Cyprus by Wilhelmine von Chézy, from which the second movement Andante draws its theme.

Though Fischer’s tone was characteristically pure and precise in this Andante, I missed the lilting lyricism that a singer would bring to the opening theme, the sense of singing through the line and taking in the phrases with a single breath.  Instead, even in the gentle opening statements of the melody, there was an emphasis on tiny details – slight swells, dynamic contrasts, accents – at the expense of the longer line.  The crescendo and forte pause in the second phrase was surprisingly aggressive, but elsewhere the music occasionally ‘retreated’ to a whisper.  In particular, although cellist Benjamin Nyffenegger shaped the cello’s motifs with exquisite sensitivity, in this movement, and throughout Schubert’s quartet, he occasionally seemed to withdraw so far as to almost ‘disappear’ and at times I lost a sense of the harmonic direction of the music.  When Alexander Sitkovetsky’s initial rolling quavers evolved into carefree running semiquavers, I’d have liked to hear more of this second violin blossoming which lends so much warmth and freedom to the music.

A similar ‘distancing’ marked the start of the Menuetto: Nyffenegger’s murmuring invitation to the dance was ‘barely there’ and the rhythmic lilt which grows with the entry of the upper voices was not strongly emphasised as, once again, exaggerated swells and contrasts disrupted the forward flow.  This movement certain does possess a brooding quality – the theme comes from Schubert’s setting of Schiller’s line, ‘Schöne Welt, wo bist du?’, ‘Beautiful world, where are you?’ – but the Julia Fischer Quartet made Schubert’s rueful wistfulness seem rather bleak and despairing.  A steady tempo gave the Allegro ma non troppo a fitting air of grave rumination, and here the sharp definition of the musical material, particularly the numerous and varied accompaniment figures, created an ominous energy which grew in intensity through the development section.  But, in the variations of the Finale – in which the insouciant theme was played with cool cleanness – the darker episodes prevailed and I missed the warm optimism which grows as Schubert’s perky folk motif emerges from the shadows.

The Julia Fischer Quartet’s attention to detail was more advantageous in Janáček’s First String Quartet, ‘Intimate Letters’, which we heard before the interval.  There was real equality between the four voices, too, as they emerged from the crisply defined accompanying timbres and figurations to pronounce the melodic arguments surely and persuasively.  I heard many small details that I had not particularly noted before: the strength of the ensemble pizzicato that marks the point at which all four players remove their mutes in the opening Adagio/Con moto, for example, and the second violin’s floating contribution to that movement’s closing chord, which adds a dissonant fifth to the resolving cadence.

The music’s startling contrasts were exploited to the full.  The third movement juxtaposed the elegiac tenderness of the exchange between the first violin and cello with startling sul ponticello spikiness – real ‘nails on a blackboard’ stuff! – and in this movement the steely power of Fischer’s high E-string pronouncements, more assertive than impassioned perhaps, was striking.  And, there was stirring ferocity from Sitkovetsky and viola player Nils Mönkmeyer, who relished the vigour, even violence, of Janáček’s driving inner parts.

Such details and clarity attested to thoroughness of preparation and scrupulous exactitude in performance.  But, such intellectual and technical ‘perfectionism’ also resulted, I felt, in a slight sense of emotional restraint.  The second movement might have danced with a more acerbic vigour, and the return of the quartet’s initial yearning motif at the start of the finale did not feel truly laden with Slavic sorrow.  The eccentricities of the music were unfailing defined with precision, but I did not feel that they were not used to tell the music’s ‘story’, to express its emotional narrative.

The work I enjoyed most was that with which the recital began: Beethoven’s Op.74 Quartet in Eb, known as ‘The Lark’ in reference to the pizzicato arpeggios of the first movement Poco adagio- Allegro.  Not surprisingly, these rippling figures rang brightly as the musicians delighted in exploring the inventive, fresh quartet timbres and textures that Beethoven experimented with in this quartet.

The slow introduction was contemplative, as the players gently nudged the opening motif to life, the slightly veiled tone gradually brightening through the ensuing first violin elaboration, like the sun’s rays penetrating through a cloud.  The vibrant dialogues of the Allegro never ceased and there was a strong sense of breadth and expansion of the musical ‘space’ as the individual voices vied with each other for prominence, constantly offering the ear new ideas.  There was a similar sense of reaching high and low at the start of the Adagio, ma non troppo, though the sound was beautifully blended as Fischer’s theme unfolded serenely.  The Quartet created strong forward momentum through the second subject, despite the busy melodic elaborations and figurations, before easing to a concordant point of rest at the quiet close.  The minor key Presto was attacked with such vigour – a wildness that at times bordered on mania! – that I thought the players might be lifted from their seats by the energy field generated, and the playful accents of Beethoven’s Allegretto con variationi were articulated with similar dynamism and freedom.

Although I was not totally won over by the Julia Fischer Quartet’s interpretations in this recital, here, I felt, they captured every ounce of the music’s experimental quirkiness and gentle humour.

Claire Seymour

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