Kelemen Play Mozart and Tchaikovsky with Total Confidence and Conviction

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Tchaikovsky: Kelemen Quartet, Wigmore Hall, London, 9.3.2015. (GD)

Mozart: String Quartet in C major K 465 ‘Dissonance’
Tchaikovsky:   String Quartet No. 3 in E flat major Op.30


As with a recital by the Belcea Quartet just over a week ago, there was an opening announcement that the recital would open with the Mozart quartet followed by the Tchaikovsky quartet – an inversion of the advertised recital. With the Belcea recital there was much more of a specific logic as to why they altered the sequence of their programme, detailed in my review. Of course in any concert where Mozart and Tchaikovsky are programmed Tchaikovsky’s love/reverence for Mozart offers a self-evident link.  But having said this, there was far less to comment on, except the obvious chronology of the change, and the possibility that more highly charged ‘romantic’ intensity of the Tchaikovsky would have taken up too much concentration, interfering with the concentration required for the Mozart. But this is a rather silly argument, as the Mozart arguably requires more concentration from the listener. Perhaps it was just a last minute change made by the players for a range of reasons?

 This was one of the Wigmore’s Sunday Morning ‘Coffee’ concert series, although by the time coffee is served it is well into PM! But despite all this it is a wonderful way to spend a Sunday ‘morning’. The Kelemen are a young quartet (founded in 2010) in Budapest and , no doubt, following a line of eminent Hungarian quartets from the  Hungarian Quartet, the Budapest Quartet, and more recently the Takács Quartet .

 The so called ‘Dissonance’ Quartet gained its name from the C minor opening adagio with its grinding seconds and false relations. Many of Mozart’s contemporaries viewed it as bizarre, a mistake by Mozart. There were even attempts in the 19th century to ‘improve’ the objectional passages. What was far less commented on was that the introduction does not exist in isolation; the following Allegro’s principal theme, its descending bass and ascending four-note motif, derives directly from the opening. The Kelemen played the famous ‘dissonant’ introduction well, although I would have welcomed a shade more sotto voce, demonstrated to perfection by the Hagen Quartet a few weeks ago. The Allegro contains deeply contrasting ideas, clearly marked points of articulation and bold harmonic gestures. The terse development section miraculously elaborates the initial motive of the first allegro  theme polyphonically with trenchant gestures, even conjuring ominous shadows of the introduction through the clashing of false relations. In the Andante cantabile the dissonances of the secondary material recall those of the first movement  introduction. But here it is the transition between primary and secondary material – a dialogue for violin and cello – which receives the most prominent treatment and which is further set in relief by the way it conceals the reprise. After a strongly chromatic  Menuetto, the finale returns to quasi Haydnesque gestures. Its development travels to remote keys beginning with a striking C minor,  and the coda transforms the principal idea into a wonderful wash of thematic/tonal constellations bringing the cycle of Haydn quartets to a triumphant close. Overall the Kelemen turned in a good rendition with outer movement repeats and first movement development repeat observed. This was brilliant playing by any standards, although, as noted above, there were elements of Mozart’s superbly economic,  subtle transitions, and multi-tonal developments, particularly in the first movement, and radiant finale, where I wanted less ‘brilliance’ and more tonal finesse and harmonic flexibility found resonantly in the Quatuor Mosaiques and the superb Hagen Quartet.

 Tchaikovsky had misgivings about his Quartet No. 3 in E flat minor. It received its first public performance in 1876 in Moscow by the famous (at the time) Moscow Quartet. It was a great success and had to be repeated four days later. Although Tchaikovsky acknowledged the success to his Brother Modest, he retained doubts about the work, and indeed about his three string quartets in general. After the third quartet he never wrote another, and although there are several fine recordings of the work it is not now much performed in public. This neglect is a mystery because the third quartet offers almost everything one would want from a string quartet: there is, as would be expected from Tchaikovsky, plenty of fine melodic material, incredible contrasts in tonality and texture, an exhilarating coda, and, at the work’s centre, an inspiring and impressive quasi funeral march. It has often been commented that the quartet is ‘ symphonic’ in scope, and indeed the textures often sound very orchestral. It is surprising that no one, as far as I know, has attempted to transcribe the work into an orchestral composition? The work runs for nearly 40 minutes which for a string quartet is long by any standards.

 The Kelemen gave a suitably big and bold rendition. the Andante sostenuto  introduction to the first movement was played intensely with just the right degree of rubato, the two main themes marked Cantabile e molto expressivo were inflected by a note of sadness typical of the composer. Also the transition into the Allegro moderato was articulated with complete conviction. Towards the recapitulation the semblance of a theme from an aria from Eugene Onegin last act – a cradle song, so popular in 19th century opera – was clearly discernible but never underlined. The mood swings of the brief Allegro vivo e scherzando were nicely balanced as were the key changes from E minor to E major. The Andante funèbre e doloroso ma con moto, maintained a marvellous tread, with suggestions of a muffled drum, while never dragging. The movement’s coda, reached after several impressive minor key chorale themes, is considered to be one of the composer’s finest achievements and this was potently manifest in the Kelemen’s care in terms of phrasing, with a wonderfully sustained  mood of melancholy and grief. We are reminded of the mournful funeral music in the lively Allegro finale, but this soon gives way to the high spirits and briskness which are compounded in one of the most energetic and powerfully jubilant coda’s Tchaikovsky ever composed.

 It is hoped that the Kelemen will record this string quartet, and possibly all three Tchaikovsky string quartets. I will still listen to the classic Borodin Quartet in this work, but the Kelemen offer a compelling alternative.

 As an encore the Kelemen offered the Finale. Allegro vivace from Bartok’s Fifth String Quartet – an incredibly difficulty piece for any string quartet – but they played it with total confidence and conviction.

 The Kelemen’s cellist  Laszlo Fenyo was indisposed. He was replaced by Dora Kocsis, who obviously had a rapport with the quartet.

Geoff Diggines

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