Three Quartets in a Minor Key from the Arcanto

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Beethoven, Smetana, Schumann: Arcanto Quartet, Wigmore Hall London, 25.4.2015 (GD)

Beethoven:  String Quartet in F minor. Op. 95 ‘Quartetto serioso’
Smetana:  String Quartet No. 1 in E minor ‘From My Life’
Schumann:  String Quartet No.1 in A minor Op. 41


The only connecting theme  I could discern here is that all three quartets are in the minor key. I note that one commentator claimed that all three works end on a note of optimism; this is true of the Beethoven and Schumann, but hardly the Smetana! But all round the three works, although very different from each, other made a splendid and interesting recital.   The Opus 95 Quartet takes the sonata form to new levels of intense economy and dramatic expression. As in the ‘Appassionata Sonata, Op 57, also in F minor, one hears Beethoven’s unique voice, fully anticipating the later works of his full maturity. Beethoven abandons any notion of a Haydnesque introduction, taking us directly into the drama with a brusque octave summons, which is to prove the most significant feature of the movement.

The Arcanto Quartet delivered this terse opening with a  trenchant energy, while at the same time maintaining a perfect instrumental finesse and unity, extending into the tensely economic development section which, like the coda, is shaped around the rhythmic pendant  of the opening gesture. The D major Allegretto was beautifully phrased with a minimum of vibrato. The opening descending figure  on the cello was contoured by Jean-Guihen Queyras with an eloquent lucidity. In fact, this lucidity and clarity characterised the whole work, and indeed the whole recital. It is a style which is antithetical to any kind of heavy expressive rhetoric heard often, particularly in this work. This clarity and purity of tone was particularly effective in the middle-section four-part fugue on a chromatically descending subject. All this was in strong contrast to the dynamic movement of the scherzo with its harsh, jagged rhythms delivered here with a cutting thrust and clarity, as trenchantly and powerfully played as I have ever heard it. The rondo finale, with its clipped phrases and repeated notes was played with a real determination and empathy, as was the surprise coda with its change from minor to major mode,  Beethoven ending his ‘serious’ quartet with a smile.

Just imagine having your first quartet played in a quartet which included Dvořák playing  the viola! All this took place in a private performance in Smetana’s beloved  Prague in 1878. At this time there was a real identity with a city like Prague, a real feeling for the city’s ‘aura’, its beautiful land-scape, river, all expressed in the composer’s great orchestral work, Má Vlast. In contrast today’s Prague is better known for its loud and vulgar stag parties, cheap ‘happy hour’ gassy beer and myriad brothels. This beautiful quartet, like Janáček’s First Quartet, is quasi auto-biographical speaking of very personal themes thus the title ‘My life’. Some of these themes are full of life-affirming optimism, like the second movement with its recollections of his happy convivial youth; others are of more pessimistic themes as in the last movement with its high sustained harmonic E on first violin representing the ringing in his ears (tinnitus) that presaged his tragic deafness, although the actual ringing was a chord in A-flat major. Not since Mozart, with his great string quintets with two violas, has this instrument played such a prominent role, as heard in the florid  viola passages of the first movement. Smetana even instructs the instrument in the second movement to sound like a village band trumpet. This movement is inflected with the rhythms of a polka . The third movement Largo takes the form of an impassioned love song beginning with a sonorous cello solo, and introducing the warm tones of A flat major. The mid-movement surge towards an ineluctable climax reaches a jubilant C major which gives way to  an ‘inner voice’ melody on second violin, a more subdued take on an earlier cello theme. which eventually moves towards a touchingly ‘gentle’ coda. The finale, with its initial major key optimism, ‘high spirits’ and lilting dance-like second subject eventually reaches a coda in which the opening movement’s second subject is hauntingly remembered in fragmented form, becoming increasingly sotto voce and ending in virtual silence. The Arcanto managed to bring all these chiaroscuro elements, themes and inflections to life as it were. I can’t imagine a better played viola part than that of  Tabea Zimmermann, particularly in the  first movement, or a more subtle and lucidly diverse cello part as that of Jean-Guihen Queyres particularly in the slow third movement.  All the village/folk inflections of particularly the second movement were played with an empathy and humour which were deliciously moving. The joyous dance rhythms of the finale were played with a real sharpness and thrust, also with a natural sounding sense of folk cross-rhythms and slightly off-beat accents. I almost thought that they sounded idiomatically Czech, but it is probably impossible for a non-Czech quartet to sound authentically Czech – I am sure I will receive some  rebuttals on this point – but one only has to listen to the Prague Quartet, the Bohemian Quartet and the Talich to hear my point. These classic string quartets all came from that central European (in Smetana’s time) tradition, they played on different instruments, and had their own bowing techniques; the music was in their blood – to use a well worn cliché. Most of the members came from Kafka’s city, or nearby. But despite all  this the Arcanto Quartet will make a wonderful and equally valid alternative, probably corresponding more to our more eclectic age of globalisation and  multi-culturalism.

It is still quite amazing that the two Op. 41 quartets of Robert Schumann are relatively rarely performed. They are both so quintessentially Schumannesque, and it is arguable that this first A minor Quartet is even more so. From their inception in 1842 there have been complaints that there is a certain ‘awkwardness’ in Schumann’s handling of the string quartet medium, but this was hardly in evidence in tonight’s rendition. Although Schumann had thoroughly studied the ‘classical’ quartets of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven – the influence of especially late Beethoven is felt at several points in the two quartets – the opening of the A minor quartet is far from classical: the beginning of the harmonically ambiguous canonic introduction hints at C major, only gradually revealing the tonic key of A minor. In this introduction there are certainly  semblances of the fugal opening of Beethoven’s Op. 131, but more generally the influence of J S Bach (whom Schumann revered) is resonant. All these florid canonic lines were realised to perfection by the Arcanto, obtaining a flowing sense of canonic , florid drive and movement. The ensuing ‘Allegro’ in F major was invested with all the energy and frisson associated in the composers writings with his extrovert alter ego Florestan. In the scherzo, back into A minor, the Arcanto projected all the urgent and forceful elements of the Florestan side of Schumann’s personality. The more reflective, poetic Intermezzo in C major (which takes the place of the conventional Trio), was played in all its contrasting and slightly dreamy mood. A warm dream-like tone also imbues the atmosphere of the F major Adagio, with its long-breathed melodic lines, intoned in a counterpoint of sinuous semiquaver figurations – the more introspective Eusebius side of Schumann’s literary/musical imagination all compellingly (poetically) intoned.   The finale begins in a firm A minor but flirts with F major again before it has run its impetuous course, ending in an exultant A major. The Arcanto quartet realized this multifarious work, with all its Florestan/Eusebius mood swings, with an amazing and compelling empathy. Even in Schumann’s typically multi-layered, contrapuntal inventions there was a wonderful sense of lucidity and clarity, never a clarity in itself, but one which enhanced the complex emotional range of Schumann’s unique music.

As a delightful encore we had the Capriccio’from György Kurtág’s Moments Musicaux Op. 44 for String Quartet, the Arcanto Quartet obviously enjoying this Mephistophelian broken, half-unified, strange, Paul Klee-like, rhythmic pizzicato, staccato miniature – but a miniature that could, at any moment, transmogrify into something far more vast and threatening.

Geoff Diggines.

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