Quatuor Diotima Offer a ‘Shock of the New’ in Szymanowski, Saunders and Schubert

19/01/2018

Szymanowski, Rebecca Saunders, and Schubert: Quatuor Diotima (Yun-Peng Zhao, Constance Ronzatti (violins), Franck Chevalier (viola), Pierre Morlet (cello)). Wigmore Hall, London, 18.1.2018. (MB)

Szymanowski – String Quartet no.2, op.56
Rebecca Saunders – Unbreathed (world premiere)
Schubert – String Quartet no.15 in G major, D 887

Bracingly modernist Szymanowski opened this Quatuor Diotima concert. Tremolandi in the first movement of the Second String Quartet sounded almost as if presentiments of Ligetian swarming. Clarity was striking too; there was nowhere to hide, almost as if this were Mozart. (It would have been very odd Mozart indeed, but anyway…) And when Ligeti bowed out, there was a Schoenbergian violence to the string-writing, married in performance to a very Gallic abrasion. Harmonics sounded other-world – and not in a sentimental way. There was palpable fury in the precision of the second movement, not unlike Bartók, although certainly not to be reduced in that way. Tonality sounded just as ambiguous here as it had in the first movement; one ‘knew’ it, yet did not always experience it. If there were a little less of such ambiguity in the third movement, there was at least as much emotional ambiguity to its unfolding. This was some of the least gorgeous Szymanowski I have heard, but was none the worse for it; it seemed to speak with, even of, truth.

If the shock of the new infused the Szymanowski performance, and would do so still more the Schubert in the second half, Rebecca Saunders’s Unbreathed, here receiving its world premiere, was performed with all the confidence of an established repertory work – which surely it will become. The title comes from her own poetic inscription:

Inside, withheld, unbreathed,
Nether, undisclosed.

Souffle, vapour, ghost,
Hauch and dust.

Absent, silent, void,
Naught beside.

Either, neither, sole,
Unified.

Written in a single movement, it seemed to me to be divided into two sections, the second initially perhaps suggestive of a slow movement that is not a slow movement, before turning out to breathe – or perhaps to unbreathe – if the reference will be forgiven, the air of another planet beyond the more familiar ‘another planet’. A destination of sorts, I think: but how had the music got there? Phrases, arguably ‘gestural’, yet certainly not only gestural, seemed to incite one another: consecutively, overlapping, even simultaneously; rhythmically as well as melodically. As often in Saunders’s music, the illusion of an electronic penumbra proved melodically fascinating, indeed constructive; it was no mere ‘effect’. Was that perhaps even an approach to Stockhausen in a frenetic, hard-won upward passage? I found myself preoccupied by the relationship between vertical and horizontal that yet, almost contradictorily, seemed to play itself out through time, in a dramatic form creating itself in modernistic fashion. Then the relative calm of much of that second section, eerie and not at all still, suggested ghosts in a reinvented, reset machine, anything but dualistic.

Schubert’s G major Quartet, D 887, sounded quite unlike any Schubert I had ever previously heard, although I am not sure I can really put my finger on how, let alone why. As in the Szymanowski, there was something truly menacing, coldly so, to the tremolandi, but it was much more than that. Likewise it was more than a matter of febrile energy, although that too played its part. It was not that the performance was fragmentary; it had a strong sense of line, at least in certain ways; nevertheless, sometimes phrases, again as in Szymanowski, seemed on the verge of taking leave of their tonal moorings. Passages of relative stasis sounded all the odder in this context, at least to begin with all the more unnerving. However, by the time we reached the second movement, which, like its predecessor, sounded slower than it most likely was, I was missing a little too much a sense of harmonic motion. Was it I who was merely missing it, though, or was it not there? I genuinely do not know, especially since it seemed to be restored somewhat in the scherzo, if only on account of the nature of the material. Its trio, though, sounded especially weirdly distended, all the more so on account of generally glassy tone. This was strange, even wearing Schubert. Should it (not) have been? Again, I do not know.

Mark Berry

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