United Kingdom Mozart, Mendelssohn, Ravel: The Endellion String Quartet [Andrew Watkinson & Ralph da Souza (violins), Garfield Jackson (viola), David Waterman (cello)], Wigmore Hall, London, 18.6.2015 (CS)
Mozart: String Quartet in E flat major K.428
Mendelssohn: String Quartet No.2 in A minor Op.13
Ravel: String Quartet in F major
The Endellion String Quartet celebrated their 35th anniversary last year, and the current complement have been performing together for almost 30 years. Gramophone magazine has commented that, ‘There’s always a feeling when listening to the Endellion Quartet that you’re listening to the Urtext method of quartet playing’, that they exhibit ‘a uniformity of thought and instinct that allows them to play as a single entity’. On this occasion, however, I felt that the quartet were focusing so hard on performing as a perfectly melded unit – with blended sound, true intonation and complementary phrasing – that they did not relax into the music itself, and this created moments of slight tension when the musicians seemed to be pulling against each other; not so far as to lessen the technical assurance of their delivery, but sufficient to make the individual spirit of the three works performed difficult to capture.
Mozart’s String Quartet in E flat major is the third of the so-called ‘Haydn Quartets’ composed between 1782 to 1785 which Mozart dedicated to the older composer, whom he had met in 1781. The Endellion characteristically made the conversational debates of the Allegro non troppo crisp and articulate, with second violinist Ralph da Souza’s tiny rhythmic motif and Garfield Jackson’s viola contributions particularly vivid within the four-part texture. After the broad spaciousness of the unusually chromatic unharmonised statement which opens the movement, the dotted rhythm motifs at the close of the exposition were surprisingly muscular. The contrapuntal development of the material was lucid, but restrained rather than playful.
David Waterman’s leisurely quavers imbued the Andante con moto with an unhurried air as the chromatic harmonies unfolded above. The players brought forth the intensity of the intertwining suspensions, but I’d have liked a more dream-like ambience: musical sighs rather than urgent yearnings. The sweeping up-beat to the Menuetto was a robust statement suggesting a rustic vigour, though Andrew Watkinson’s line of falling quavers was a graceful complement to the opening gesture. The discreet use of vibrato cast an apt shadow over the minor-key Trio which revived the nostalgic melancholy of the second movement. Mozart has fun in the Allegro vivace finale, after the sombreness of the preceding movements: the down-beat quaver-motif which propels the movement is like a nonchalant cock-of-the-head, jaunty and impish. But, the Endellion made the mischievous shrug feel rather sturdy, and while they made much of the dynamic contrasts and unexpected silences, as Watkinson scampered briskly through the running passages, they did not quite bring off the transition from the earlier seriousness to the puckishness of this conclusion.
Mendelssohn’s A Minor Quartet, Op.13 is infused with a gentle sadness, written as it was in 1827 after the deaths of both Beethoven and one of the composer’s close friends, and this quiet melancholy is established in the three-note phrase which opens the introductory Adagio. The motif was borrowed from Mendelssohn’s song, ‘Ist es War?’ whose words were written by the composer: ‘Is it true that you always wait for me there in the leafy path by the grape arbour and ask the moonlight and the little stars about me? Is it true? What I feel can only be understood by someone who feels it with me, and who will stay forever true to me.’
So, this is a quartet about loss and love. The Endellion chose a fairly brisk tempo for the reflective prelude, and the major-key reflections did not quite capture the music’s bitter-sweet sentimentality, although there was a seriousness of purpose which saw the viola’s oscillating growl erupt into a vigorous Allegro vivace in which the voicings were clear and the rapid semi-quavers raced lightly. The intonation was not always perfectly true in this opening movement, but the following Adagio non lento was more secure, and its structure and mood well-realised. The cantabile first theme sang beautifully with meticulously controlled dynamic variety and the animato into the contrapuntal central section injected an apt note of anxiety and restlessness. The return of the theme brought resolution but not calm; an essential sadness tempered the quiet legato lines and the climbing closing phrase ascended tenderly into a wistful silence.
Andrew Watkinson phrased the theme of the Intermezzo with individuality and character, above resonant pizzicato chords which were strong but not always perfectly tuned. The scherzo episode was fleet and fanciful as, one by one, the players joined Jackson’s elfin-like semi-quaver shimmerings: passages such as this demonstrated the quartet’s unity of thought and practice. Watkinson was fittingly rhetorical in the ad libitum declarations which open the Presto and the movement was tempestuous and energetic as the various themes of the preceding movements were revisited, varied and developed. There was some rhythmic flexibility in the concluding restatement of the first movement’s preface, and the Endellion ended less with peaceful resignation than with an underlying sense of a disquiet which could not be fully banished.
The Endellion’s approach to Ravel’s String Quartet was one of elegance and restraint. The opening of the Allegro moderato (très doux) had a swift momentum which engendered lightness and refinement, although this forward motion was not entirely sustained throughout the movement. The quartet worked hard, though, to bring forth the distinctive colours and textures, but the kaleidoscopic effects were never allowed to obscure the sureness of the traditional structures; and there was a good balance between the quiet murmurings and the more poised thematic statements, as the players enjoyed the shifting interplay between the voices.
I’d have liked a bit more percussive bite and frisson in the pizzicato passages which initiate the Assez vif – (très rythmé), but the tone was warm. Watkinson’s lyrical E-string theme bloomed purely above the rocking motifs below, underpinned by the cello’s precise rhythmic foundation, and the complex rhythmic conflicts of the movement were assuredly handled.
The slow movement, Très lent, was one of the highlights of the evening, Jackson’s viola lines often taking the lead with persuasive expressiveness. The various tempi melded seamlessly and the ever-changing textures, muted sonorities and trembling flickerings created a hypnotic eeriness. The finale, Vif et agité, exploded fierily out of this calm. The movement was energised and volatile, agitated tremolo passages alternating with more soulful interjections, but perhaps the Endellion might have found more freedom in the instability of the five-beat meter and more triumph in the surging crescendo which pushes the work to such a resounding, exultant conclusion.