Magnificent Mozart, Kurtág and Brahms from the Elias

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Kurtág, Brahms: Elias Quartet, Pascal Moragues (clarinet) Wigmore Hall, London., 30.5.2012. (GD)

Mozart: String Quartet in A major K 464
Kurtág: Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervanszky Op. 28
Brahms: Clarinet Quintet in B minor Op.115

Interestingly, as the quartet’s first violin Sara Bitlloch explained, tonight’s underlying theme focused on the way in which the variation form has a myriad incarnations and potentials. The three chosen compositions demonstrate the form’s range, from a masterwork of the ‘classical’ age, to a fascinatingly economical ‘modern’ work, ending with a masterpiece from the ‘Romantic’ period,. It is difficult though to describe Brahms as a ‘Romantic’, as his work both looks back to ‘classical’, encompasses an interest in pre-classical music, and also looks forward to the modern age.

If ever there was a miracle of the classical quartet it is to be found Mozart’s A major Quartet K 464. This is the fifth quartet in Mozart’s set of six quartets from 1785, known as the ‘Haydn Quartets’. It is well known that Haydn thought very highly of these quartets of his younger Austrian colleague, but what is less well known is that Beethoven also revered this A major quartet in particular. The Eliases gave a wonderfully refined and and eloquent rendition of the work from the initial lyrical and effortlessly flowing melodies. I had the sense of a musical finesse achieved by all four players playing as a quartet, in harmony with each other, listening to each other. I know it sounds obvious, but it is surprising how little this is heard to the same extent. The polyphonic elaboration within the easy and unobtrusive stream of sound sounded absolutely spontaneous. Everything was there without ever being underlined; the art of interpretation which conceals interpretation. The polyphonic elements, elaborations bringing in a more dramatic charge in A minor at the second subject were perfectly timed. The recapitulation, restating the opening theme, now with the semblance of chromatic harmony, and the gentle intimacy of the coda were all contoured to perfection The contrast between the main A major of the ‘Minuet’ and its contrast with the songful Trio in E major was beautifully realised, as was the euphony of the luxuriant writing for all four parts. The Andante in D major is one the longest movement’s Mozart wrote – at least the longest up to the date of the composition of this work. It is the only set of variations in the series of the six quartets with the exception of the Finale of the D minor Quartet K 421. A book length commentary could be written on this extraordinary movement. Here I will confine myself to a few salient points. The second variation with its new melody on the first violin was beautifully echoed by the cello, with the second violin playing an obligato counterpoint in steady demi-semi quavers. The fourth variation, with its plunge into D minor, was a model of tonal, dynamic contrast. But perhaps the highlight of this movement and this performance was the sixth and final variation with the strange drum-like rhythm in the cello, which continues until the end of the movement, where it is taken up by the other three instrumwents in gradual succession. The final ‘allegro’, with all its constellations of chromatic counterpoint, ranging from the dominant F sharp of the development section to the following D major chorale-like theme, and bringing to mind the lofty spirituality of a Masonic ceremony, were all delivered with a perfect sense of contrast within a sublime unity of variation themes. My only quibble, and it is a slight one, was the omission of the development repeat in the first movement, which Mozart marked to be played. But all the other repeats were observed and the omission in no way detracted from the overall excellence of the performance.

Gyorgy Kurtág’s Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervanszky, composed in the late 1980’s, It is a remarkable synthesis of varied compositional techniques, and musical/extra-musical sources. Its primary sources are in the music of Anton Webern and its dedicatee Andreae Szervanszky, an important Hungarian composer, much influenced by Bartok, but not much played in the West. And there are several instances, mostly technical, where the influence of Bartok is apparent in Kurtág’s work. Officium breve is a remarkably economic work, comprising fifteen variations (in line with the programme theme) and lasting a mere fourteen minutes in clock time. I say clock time, because the work’s actual musical temporal unfolding seems to encompass a vast range of musical statements and associations, in keeping with the music of Webern. The ‘in memoriam’ of the title denotes a short service, in this case a Requiem. The work orbits around one literal quotation from each of the two composers to whom it pays homage. In the sixth variation ‘Molto agitato’ there is a direct quotation from Webern’s last completed composition, the Kantate No 2 Op. 31, set to words by Hildegard Jone, a close friend of Webern. Kurtág deploys a whole range of musical forms, techniques, ranging from various canonic and chromatic, stretto paterns, to sudden, abrupt dynamic and lyrical contrasts emphasised through the use of sharp glissandi and sequences of alternating and juxtaposed themes and rhythms played simultaneously by all four players. But despite the work’s technical diversity, technique here is never foregrounded as a means in itself, but is always in the service of work: the multiple chiaroscuro moods and soundscapes, and, as in the eleventh variation ( a quasi ‘marcia funebre’), a deeply felt sense of loss, pain and resignation. I had not previously encountered this fascinating work but will make every effort to acquire a score or recording of it, if one exists? All I can really say is that the Eliases were remarkably attuned to the very intimate and prismatic tone of this score., and showed a total and absolute involment with an important ‘modern’ work which deserves to be more widely performed/recorded.

Of the many remarkable qualities the Elias Quartet brought to the Brahms Clarinet Quintet, probably the most salient was the way in which they found a total musically interwoven rapport with French clarinettist Pascal Moragues, and, not least, the actual playing of Moragues. As with the playing of Michel Portal in a recording with the Melos Quartet, Moragues brings a distinct Gallic tone to the work, if one can so call it? In this work I have been used to a more mellow sounding clarinet tone heard in recordings by Gervais de Peyer and Karl Leister and have always felt that a more mellow, lyrical clarinet tone suited the work’s autumnal mood of resignation, But, as with Portal, Moragues’ tone, even more so than with Portal, has more edge to it, more of a grainy sound, which, if anything, suits this work of tonal contrasts more. The ascending/descending runs, figurations for clarinet in the first movement exposition sounded more assertive but clearer, more sharply etched, than previously heard. Like Beethoven, Brahms viewed B minor as a particularly dark key ( ‘the dramatic key of death’), but here he compromises these deathlike tonalities with D major (‘the key of joy). This tonal juxtaposition has about it a wonderful sense of contrast and fusion of light and darkness, where the darkness and light are never as distinct as they would initially appear. This sense of tonal juxtaposition was wonderfully contoured by both Moragues and quartet, as was the already alluded to descending notes – a falling third – which permeate the whole work. Brahms used the same descending chain of thirds as a central idea in his earlier Fourth Symphony. The same falling third figure marks the beautiful song-like theme of the Adagio, with the extraordinary rich accompaniment here achieved by giving each instrument a different line and a different rhythm.It was wonderful to hear each entry and line played with such distinctive finesse within a whole structural unity. The middle section with its ‘gypsy’ inflections for clarinet found Moragues engaging with all kinds of rhythmic tonal innovation, while never losing sight of the overall line. This was surely something Brahms would have expected with his long love of Magyar sounds.

The Andantino opening with a melody again based on the falling third figure was given just the right dream-like, ‘rapt’ quality to contrast it with its ‘presto’ version for the middle section. And I have never heard a performance, live or recorded, which so spontaneously alludes to the sense of variation in each movement in anticipation of the set of five variations which form the finale con moto. The sense of contrast between the first three variations in the home key B minor, and the fourth in the major was magically achieved. Of particular note here was the second variation which gives free rein to the clarinet on syncopated string accompaniment, Moragues thoroughly enjoying every tonal/rhythmic inflection. The coda, initiated by a triple-time, semi-quaver motion, based on the falling third again, is one of Brahm’s most sublime creations. Brahms, by deceptively simple means, thematically links the fifth variation to the first theme of the first movement which surges forward inexorably to the first movement’s conclusion and is then amplified in the coda. All the parallel symmetry of this coda, its sense of coming full circle, as it where, was splendidly achieved tonight. As was the sense of the composers own detachment and renunciation in relation to both his own immanent departure, and of a troubled century coming to an end without regret for either.

Geoff Diggines.