United Kingdom Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert: The Endellion String Quartet [Andrew Watkinson & Ralph da Souza (violins), Garfield Jackson (viola), David Waterman (cello)], Wigmore Hall, London, 28.5.2014 (CS)
Haydn: String Quartet in B flat Op.55 No.3
Beethoven: String Quartet in F Op.135
Schubert: String Quartet in D minor D810 (Death and the Maiden)
It was standing room only for this recital by the Endellion Quartet, part of their 35th Anniversary season. A programme which moved from the essence of Classical balance and restraint to the darkness of Romantic despair – with Beethoven’s final quartet masterpiece throwing a glance in both directions – confirmed the Endellion’s uniformity of musical mind-set and intent.
Haydn’s three Opus 55 quartets are relatively unfamiliar representatives from the composer’s copious quartet oeuvre. Known as the ‘Tost’ quartets because of their connection to Johann Tost, a violinist in the Esterházy orchestra who later showed good commercial instincts in marketing Haydn’s music, they are tuneful and graceful, but perhaps lack the invention and idiosyncrasy of Haydn’s chamber masterpieces.
The unassuming opening, with the strings in a well-tuned octave unison, soon gave way to a lively interchange of musical ideas, the vigorous conversations between the inner parts underpinned by elegant cello support. The first violin dominates this quartet, and while Andrew Watkinson’s staccato passages were airy and precise, the tone was not always sweet, occasionally somewhat metallic in the upper range. But, as one would expect from players who share such a history of music-making, there was complete accord in terms of structure and style; Haydn’s dynamic and articulation markings were meticulously observed, the scalic paired quavers tastefully slurred. Throughout there was brisk energy, particularly in the more restless chromatic sections, although more holistically there was not always a clear sense of overall direction.
In the slow variations which followed, the main theme had just the right touch of grandeur, its dotted rhythms tempered by tight trills and ornaments. The ever-more decorative melodies – requiring nimble fingers and rhythmic accuracy from all – did not disturb the sense of the essential spaciousness of the phrasing; as the variations unfolded, the warm parallel thirds and sixths of Ralph da Souza’s second violin and Garfield Jackson’s viola provided breadth and cohesion.
The Adagio’s rhythmic motif, cleverly transformed by Haydn at the start of the Menuetto, became a bold upwards sweep from Watkinson: there was a sure sense of the gallant style which made a pleasing contrast with the gentler Trio, in which the fluently flowing triplets in the upper voice were sensitively supported by light crotchets and motivic interjections from the lower voices. The Presto was a helter-skelter of racing semiquavers, imitated and inverted; despite the breakneck tempo, entries and exchanges between paired voices were perfectly coordinated, the individual lines clearly audible within the furiously busy texture. A final extreme dynamic contrast closed the work with charm and wit.
Beethoven’s last string quartet, Op.135 – written in October 1826, four months before his death – shares the key of his first, the Op.18 No.1, published in 1801. And, to some extent there is a sense of returning to beginnings in that, after the radical formal experimentations of the late quartets, especially the Opp.132 and 133, the composer resumed the more conventional four-movement sequence – though there is, as one would expect, much originality and unpredictability.
Reflection and control characterised the Endellion’s performance of the Allegretto. The opening textures were transparent and pure, but there was a hint of both playfulness and intimacy in these initial quizzical gestures, which developed in the ensuing movement – despite the frequent fragmentation of the motifs, during which one can almost hear the composer’s creative processes at work – into a relaxed, comfortable conversation between old friends.
After the wry rhythmic imbalances of its opening and the rapid upward scales of the first violin, in the Vivace scherzo a thrilling wild savagery threatened to spill beyond the bounds of the rustic energy, Watkinson’s crisp-edged leaps cutting through the ceaseless momentum of the lower voices’ repetitive circling motif. After such wild abandon, with its threat of dissolution, the quiet interlude which follows was almost a relief, before the satisfying return of the jaunty opening.
The Lento is one of Beethoven’s great quartet slow movements and the Endellion powerfully captured its reverent mood, the low register grave and melancholy. The theme and variations unfolded in an inexorable, evolving melody; after the calm beginning, the unsettling change to the minor tonality was enhanced by the slightly faltering rhythm shared by the four homophonic voices, making the return to the major deeply affecting as David Waterman’s cello beautifully reprised the theme. The wraith-like aspiring motifs of the closing bars were simultaneously tender and sorrowful.
The infamous inscription, “Muss es sein”, prefaces the final Allegro, but while Beethoven may tease with questions – what is the ‘difficult resolution’ of his sub-title, ‘Der schwer gefasste Entschluss’? – the Endellion seemed confident of the answers, the joy and ease of their playing an assertive rejoinder to the vexed introduction. The return of the minor key questions were therefore a dramatic interruption, before the movement’s boisterous dance raced to its conclusion.
If the pre-interval works digressed a little from the heart of the quartet repertoire, Schubert’s Death and the Maiden took us back to the centre ground. The first movement Allegro certainly began with an air of heavy despair, although I found the tempo a little too moderate, weakening the music’s inherent intimations that one is standing on a precipice – particularly at the recapitulation of the main theme – and also diluting the affecting contrasts as the music alternates between bleakness and hope. The lilting second subject sang warmly but in the more ferocious developments of the opening triplet motif at times the attack was overly aggressive, the timbre occasionally strident.
The song melody upon which the Andante variations are based inevitably lays a spirit of mortality upon this movement, but there are also hues of quiet resignation and peace, and in the gentle opening theme the four strings blended beautifully in middle register, before the first violin began its virtuosic elaborations. The players slipped deliciously into the major key variation, the sweet radiance offering a brief glimpse of a consolation which seems for ever just beyond reach. The rhythmic complexity and extreme dynamics of the final variation emphasised both mystery and suffering.
The rhythmic dynamism of the Scherzo created quite a ‘modern’ sound-world, while the tarantella of the concluding Presto became a Totentanz, tumbling towards oblivion. In March 1824, the very month of the D-minor Quartet, Schubert wrote his oft-quoted letter to the painter Leopold Kupelwieser:
“Imagine a man whose health will never be right again, and whose sheer despair over this ever makes things worse and worse, instead of better; imagine a man, I say, whose most brilliant hopes have perished, to whom the felicity of love and friendship have nothing to offer but pain, at best, whom enthusiasm (at least of the stimulating kind) for all things beautiful threatens to forsake, and I ask you, is he not a miserable, unhappy being?”
The Endellion’s virtuosity, emotional sweep and quasi-orchestral sonority in this final movement may have embodied an annihilating desolation but there was no absence of beauty.