Musical Excellence from the Modigliani Quartet at the Wigmore Hall

15/01/2018

Haydn and Brahms: Modigliani Quartet (Amaury Coeytaux, Loïc Rio (violins), Laurent Marfaing (viola), François Kieffer (cello)). Wigmore Hall, London, 14.1.2018. (MB)

Haydn – String Quartet in G major Op.54 No.1; String Quartet in G minor Op.74 No.3, ‘Rider’
Brahms – String Quartet No.1 in C minor Op.51 No.1

It was good to be back at the Wigmore Hall, by any standards the jewel in London’s musical crown, after almost a year away. No hall or house can maintain identical  standards, night in, night out – in this case, often day in, day out too – over an entire season; even if possible, it would be quite undesirable to do so. Nevertheless, the level of musical excellence heard here far more often than not only exceeds any other venue in London, but surely withstands comparison with any in the world. The Modigliani Quartet had much to tell us in performances of Haydn and Brahms: never merely ‘different’ for the sake of it, yet, by the same token, all possessing points of particular interest to differentiate themselves from others.

Haydn’s G major Quartet, op.54 no.1, opened with cultivated tone and considerable, although far from unvaried, vibrato. One should always be wary of imputing too readily ‘national’ or other stereotypical characteristics, but the group’s sound seemed to me very much to speak of a Franco-Belgian string heritage. My ears took a minute or so to adjust, having perhaps become more accustomed recently to other schools of string playing. (I have also probably listened to less in the way of string quartet music in my time away from London.) Whatever the characteristics of the sound – or Klang, as the German in me wants to say – the important thing was that, from this first movement onward, formal process and dynamism were apparent, attentiveness of mutual listening equally clear. Modulatory development witnessed a relative, although only relative, withdrawal of vibrato, as it subtly to underline Haydn’s questing. Its concision was breathtaking, almost Webern-like. Rightly, everything had changed in the recapitulation, its material played and heard anew. Nothing was taken for granted in the slow movement either. Without any unnecessary underlining, phrasal, harmonic, and almost Schubertian modulatory qualities were made, or perhaps better, enabled, to tell. Haydn’s startling originality and ‘rightness’ of form were rendered immanent. Beethoven was but a stone’s throw away in the minuet and trio, yet a stone’s throw away he remained; this was still very much Haydn. Motivic integration nevertheless looked forward far into the future, at least as far – with the rest of the programme in mind – as Brahms. Rigour and fun proved inseparable in the finale: a properly Haydnesque combination. Both work and performance evinced sheer delight in musical argument: an object lesson in navigation of the overarching tonal universe and of the particularities of this work.

The opening bars of the Rider Quartet immediately announced that Haydn will always do things differently, in every quartet as in every symphony. Material dictated, or suggested, the terms of performance, and rightly so. Here, the composer’s transformations, all lovingly, intelligently handled, proved worthy of Beethoven or Liszt, permitting the work’s opening G minor sadness, close to yet never to be identified with, that of Mozart, to give way to other, quite different forms of musical expression. In some ways, the music seemed to assert its status as heir to the Sturm und Drang Haydn – without, again, being merely identified with him. Harmonic and tonal rarity, in every sense, were apparent in the slow movement; it was difficult not to think already of late Beethoven. The central turn to E minor offered a dignified, noble sadness all its own. The third movement was taken as a not-quite-scherzo, which seemed spot on; it might have been in three, yet was not really. Intensification in the trio was especially well judged. Haydn’s finale surprised with every twist and turn, even when, perhaps particularly when, one ‘knew’ it. The composer’s genius of motivic development and transformation could hardly have been granted more subtly dramatic life.

It was interesting, indeed enlightening, to hear Brahms’s First Quartet in the motivic developmental light of the Haydn works. If initially I found the first movement somewhat hard-driven, I tried to ask myself whether that were my problem rather than that of the performance; most likely it was. The music in any case relaxed for the second group, without loss to dramatic tension. Crucially, there were throughout this performance no compromises with the difficulty of the work. I have heard it played with richer tone, but so what? Tellingly, greater tonal richness was to be heard at points of developmental climax, prior to post-Mendelssohn passages of exhaustion. Voice-leading came very much to the fore in the Romanze, an heir to Schumann as much in sensibility as in method. Mediated simplicity was something to be worked at, by players and listeners alike; the effort was unquestionably worth it. A concision that spoke of Beethoven was to be heard in the third movement; again, one had to listen, and rightly so. There were, moreover, surely echoes of Haydn to be heard and relished in the trio, in tandem with a keen sense of ghostly, even corrosive questioning. The finale offered highly wrought intensity: a conclusion in every sense. Brahms never offers easy answers; there was no attempt to pretend that he does here.

Puccini’s Crisantemi proved an inspired choice of encore. Craftsmanship and elegiac sensibility alike proclaimed the composer far more ‘German’ than his often regrettable popular reputation might suggest. Not for nothing would he and Schoenberg so greatly admire one another.

Mark Berry

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