Modigliani Quartet Finds the Middle of the Note

United StatesUnited States Arriaga, Beethoven, and Debussy: Modigliani Quartet, Meany Hall, Seattle, 19.11.2013 (BJ)

Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga: Quartet No. 3 in E flat major
Beethoven: Quartet No. 16 in F major, Op. 135
Debussy: Quartet in G minor

It may sound like a small point, even an obvious one, but playing in tune makes a difference. In these days of generally high technical standards, most of the string quartets you are likely to encounter play in tune, pretty much. But 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.” And when four musicians of the caliber of Phillippe Bernhardt, Loïc Rio, Laurent Marfaing, and François Kieffer achieve the latter level of execution, passages in the music that previously seemed knotty and impenetrable suddenly take on a pristine clarity, all supposed problems magically resolved.

Debussy’s only string quartet can sound, I will not say impenetrable, but somewhat turgid in texture and plodding in gait. When I first heard the Modiglianis play it, six years ago in Montreux, Switzerland, they threw dazzling new light on this sometimes underrated work. What was so remarkable about their performance was the linear independence they brought to music that is too often allowed to sound ploddingly simplistic in texture.

I was a little nervous in anticipation of the Modigliani Quartet’s concert in Meany Hall on 19 November. Would this young group have been able to maintain the level of musicianship they manifested back in 2007? I need not have worried. They are even better now.

They opened their program, enterprisingly, with the Quartet No. 3 by Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga, the most amazing of all the musical prodigies history records. He was born on January 27, 1806—surely a sign of destiny, for that would have been Mozart’s fiftieth birthday. I wonder even whether his parents were conscious of such a link and potential destiny, for they gave him, in the Spanish form of Juan Crisóstomo, two of his great predecessor’s baptismal names. Arriaga died at the still more astonishingly early age of 19, leaving, in an output including an opera, a symphony, and three fine string quartets, a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been.

In his early music-critic days, before he turned to the relatively undemanding profession of playwright, George Bernard Shaw asked, “Why should I be asked to listen to the intentional intellectualities, profundities, theatrical fits and starts, and wayward caprices of self-conscious genius which make up those features of the middle period Beethovenism of which we all have to speak so very seriously, when I much prefer these beautiful, simple, straightforward, unpretentious, perfectly intelligible posthumous quartets?”

The last of those quartets, Op. 135, may come closer than some of its predecessors to justifying that description, but even this work poses its problems for players, not to mention listeners. The Modigliani Quartet solved every one of them. Here, too, with all four players crafting lines that could be individually followed within the overall texture, even the most heavily scored passages, especially in the finale, with its blend of the epic and the childlike, emerged airily lucid and exhilaratingly transparent. And it was not so much personalities that we were apprehending as Beethoven’s ideas in all their invincible integrity.

The evening ended with two encores: a Schubert piece, shaped with profound understanding and grace, and a Shostakovich polka, tossed off with cheeky and beguiling insouciance.

The Modiglianis have been playing together for ten years so far. It’s impossible to guess for certain the future for this accomplished group, but I do not think it excessively rash to suggest that it will be a story of peaks scaled and mastery further deepened.

Bernard Jacobson

A shorter version of this review appeared in the Seattle Times.

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