United Kingdom Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn: Cuarteto Casals [Vera Martínez Mahner & Meesun Hong Coleman (violins), Jonathan Brown (viola), Arnau Tomàs (cello)], Wigmore Hall, London, 22.9.2014 (CS)
Mozart: String Quartet in G K.387
Schubert: String Quartet in Eb D87
Mendelssohn: String Quartet No.2 in A minor Op.13
The indisposition of violinist Abel Tomás necessitated a change of both personnel and programme for the Cuarteto Casals’ Wigmore Hall recital, with Meesung Hong Coleman joining the ensemble for the evening, a switch from D112 to D87 for the Quartet’s Schubert offering, and the substitution of Mendelssohn’s Op.13 for Mozart’s ‘Dissonance’ Quartet.
In 2013 the Cuarteto Casals released a recording for Harmonia Mundi of the six quartets which Mozart published and dedicated to Haydn in 1785. When Haydn eventually heard a performance of three of these quartets, he made his oft-quoted comment to Mozart’s father, Leopold: ‘Before God and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name. He has taste and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition.’ Mozart had already composed several quartets by this time, but closer acquaintance with the quartets of Haydn had led him to recognise the increased independence and individual of the four conversing voices in Haydn’s quartets; this new awareness transformed Mozart’s own style and approach to the genre – the musical arguments became more complex, the textures more polyphonic, and the harmonic and motivic details more adventurous.
All of these characteristics are evident in the Quartet in G K387, which was performed with a combination of warm lyricism and rhetorical panache by the Cuarteto Casals. Despite the full tone of the opening subject, with its surprising alternation of forte and piano measures, and the bright buoyancy of Meesun Hong Coleman’s mischievous second theme, it took the players some time to settle. The ensemble was initially a little shaky, but as the exposition proceeded greater fluidity and sureness was established; Vera Martínez Mehner’s forthright accented motifs in the codetta evolved in the development section into dramatic contrapuntal engagement between the four voices before a quieter transition, with graceful trills, led to the recapitulation. There remained a few problems of ensemble, but the concluding piano bars were delicately placed and engagingly shaped.
In the Menuetto, Mehner’s unaccompanied rising line was delightfully ambiguous, the skilfully controlled alternation of loud and soft crotchets obscuring the triple time signature – Haydn must have enjoyed this ‘trick’. The rhetorical decorations at the start of the minor key Trio injected a note of drama, and the chromatic inflections were expressively emphasised. The players enjoyed the rich, full textures of the Andante Cantabile: Mehner’s low, dark explorations contrasted effectively with the pure clarity of the first violin’s high-lying decorated lines, and the ornamented melodies in all voices had grace and elegance. The final Allegro Molto burst vigorously to life and the fugal imitation had confident definition; there was some particularly ebullient viola playing from Jonathan Brown.
Instead of the originally programmed Quartet in Bb D.112 by Schubert, the Cuarteto Casals performed the composer’s Eb Quartet D.87, which was written during the same eighteen-month period when the teenage Schubert was training to be a teacher. Schubert began composing string quartets when he was just 13 years old, to furnish his two brothers and father with material for domestic music-making, the composer himself taking the viola part. But, the quartets also served to allow Schubert to experiment with ideas gleaned from his influential predecessors and to develop his own distinctive musical personality. Performing with a directness and a welcome absence of over-indulgent Romanticisms, the Cuarteto Casals – who in 2013 celebrated their fifteenth anniversary with a live recording on Blu-ray of all fifteen of the composer’s quartets – pleasingly communicated Schubert’s burgeoning ‘voice’, balancing the classical poise of the opening Allegro Moderato with the Beethovian audacity of the prestissimo Scherzo and the warm fullness of the final two movements.
The first violin bears the musical burden, but all four players shaped the phrases poetically and together they revealed a feeling for Schubert’s textures and form. The first movement was exuberant, and the tone full-bodied, with Jonathan Brown’s viola melodies phrased with particular vigour. There were some intonation problems in the Scherzo, but after the flowing lyricism of the Trio the restatement of the cheeky, leaping Scherzo material was more convincingly done. The Adagio possessed breadth and dignified elegance, and the upper strings entwined expressively above Arnau Tomàs’s focused pedal points. The finale raced and danced to a high-spirited close.
After the interval the Cuarteto Casals presented an impassioned performance of Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No.2 in A minor Op.13. In the Adagio there was an engaging sense of forward movement and the exploratory motifs were eloquently formed. The Allegro Vivace spun by with transparent textures and crisp, vitalised rhythms creating a fresh dynamism. Tomàs’s bass lines were melodious and sang resonantly, providing a sure foundation for the airy, busy material above, while Hong Coleman and Brown worked well together as a pair of middle voices. Particularly moving was the veiled pianissimo episode shortly before the movement’s conclusion, from which the music rose fierily in the closing bars. Mehner crafted a beautiful cantabile line in the Adagio non lento and the contrasts of tempo and mood were well managed although the intonation was sometimes unsettled in the contrapuntal, chromatic middle section.
The Intermezzo commenced with stately grace, but quickly took off into Midsummer Night’s Dream territory, the delicate semiquavers – which begin in the viola and are later passed between the voices – flying in fairy-like fashion. I’d have liked a little more clarity of definition in this central episode, but the transition back to the Tempo primo was purposeful. The Presto sprung into being with operatic rhetoric, the forceful tremolo of the lower strings providing a dramatic bed of sound for Mehner’s recitative-like introductory statement. The Cuarteto Casals’ agility and energy were impressive throughout this movement, and they controlled the transitions between moods and rapidly changing dynamics skilfully. After the more restrained unaccompanied restatement of the first violin’s opening ad libitum melody, the repetition of the introduction to the first movement moved from subdued distance to warm, glowing immediacy.
Mendelssohn composed this quartet in 1827, the year of Beethoven’s death – there are many strong references to Beethoven’s quartets – and the year in which the adolescent composer fell in love for the first time. Much of the quartet’s material is drawn from a tender song, ‘Frage?’, that he wrote just a few months before to express this love. The Cuarteto Casals’ final swell of sound and gentle repose was a heart-warming reminder that this quartet is infused with the joyful romance of adolescent passion.