The Cuarteto Casals Prompt Fresh Thoughts about Familiar Music

27/09/2015

   Haydn, Mozart, Schubert: Cuarteto Casals [Vera Martínez-Mehner & Abel Tomás (violins), Jonathan Brown (viola), Arnau Tomàs (cello)], Wigmore Hall London, 25.9.2015 (CS)

Haydn – String Quartet in C major Op.33 No.3 (‘The Bird’)
Mozart – String Quartet No.19 in C major K.465 (‘Dissonance’)
Schubert – String Quartet in A minor D.804 (‘Rosamunde’)

 

On paper, this Wigmore Hall recital appeared to offer a reassuringly familiar, and fairly ‘safe’, musical end to the week: a pleasant stroll along well-trodden by-ways of the Classical era, with early-Romantic domains our destination.  In the event, the Cuarteto Casals showed us that we don’t know this landscape quite as well as we might think: or, at least, they made us think, with interpretations which were never ‘new’ or ‘different’ for their own sake, but which aimed to open our ears to the music as if for the first time, and with playing that was unfailingly fresh and direct.

Haydn’s String Quartet in C, the third of the Op.33 set and commonly known as ‘The Bird’, was the epitome of bucolic charm and lucidity, but did not lack dramatic energy.  The Cuarteto Casals stood to perform – with cellist Arnau Tomàs seated on a raised platform between Vera Martínez-Mehner, playing the second violin part, and viola player Jonathan Brown – and from the first there was an alert dynamism between the four players.  The quicksilver ornaments of Abel Tomás’s theme sat on a warm bed of repeating quavers, and foreshadowed a wonderfully airy and bright second subject, in which the two violins’ bows brushed the string with delicacy and fleetness, yet still projected the fluttering motifs which have given the Quartet its nickname with crystalline vigour and brightness.  Indeed, the obvious and natural empathy between Tomás and Martínez-Mehner – the duo often turned and played ‘to each other’ – made we wonder whether this would disrupt the overall balance of the quartet; but the dark-hued sotto voce of the following (fairly conservatively paced) Scherzando swept such doubts aside.  This was warm, characterful playing, tinged with a nuance of shadow, which captured and held the listener’s ear.  The staccato violin duet of the Allegretto trio – with its mercurial trills and tiptoeing accompaniment – was a delicious contrast: like the appearance of a will-o’-the-wisp in a nocturnal forest.

In the Adagio the Cuarteto Casals’ appreciation of the way in which Haydn’s dynamics and gestural instructions, such as precise sforzandi, can lend both humour and spaciousness to the music was admirably demonstrated, recalling the way that such details had been so convincingly articulated in the exposition of the first movement.  The Rondo Presto was high-spirited and the tempo ‘break-neck’, but the precision never once faltered; again, there were interesting contrasts – the brisk pace and quite ‘dry’ metronomic regularity of the theme’s staccato stutterings were balanced by a beguiling sweetness of tone.  There was a gentle teasing quality to the overall mood, but such wit never tempered the seriousness of the overall musical intent.

Just before Haydn’s ground-breaking Op.33 quartets were published in 1781, it is thought that Mozart was present at a gathering where these works were performed. If Haydn’s Op.33 had stunned their audiences with their innovations – formal, textural, conversational, expressive – then the harmonically disorientating Adagio which commences Mozart’s String Quartet in C K.465 surely surpassed ‘Papa Haydn’s’ shock-waves.  Here, the Adagio flowed swiftly; the fairly fast tempo perhaps rendered the renowned ‘dissonances’ less piercing but also imbued them with a sure sense of direction, and the ‘edge’ endowed by the harmonic extremes was in any case lessened by cellist Arnau Tomàs’s even, throbbing quavers which provided a mellifluous, consoling underpinning to the explorations above.  So, it was a little disappointing that when the Allegro was reached the Cuarteto Casals took time to settle into a unified tempo and spirit.  Perhaps what is truly innovatory about this Quartet is the complexity and equality of Mozart’s polyphonic voice-writing, and the four players took some time to find their footing in this regard.  The Casals set off at quite a lick; but slowed in the bridge passage to the second subject, although by the development section the players had reached an accord.  In the Andante Cantabile I was won over by the way that the four players elucidated the invention with which Mozart constantly varies the accompaniment texture, pairing the voices in ever-refreshing combinations; Jonathan Brown’s viola was a particularly strong presence in these exchanges, and the call-and-response dialogues between first violin and cello were similarly affecting.

The Menuetto had a charming, straightforward robustness after the nuanced expressivity of the first two movements; but, again, here there was much development, drama, conflict and variety – surprisingly forthright polyphonic entries challenged the simplicity of the melody.  The shift to the tonic minor in the Allegretto trio injected a note of foreboding which would find fulfilment in the Schubert Quartet which concluded the programme.  But with the Allegro molto all such intimation was put on hold; instead there was irrepressible forward momentum and endless invention and juxtaposition.  The Cuarteto Casals harnessed the music’s innate restlessness most expressively and successfully.

After the interval Martínez-Mehner and Tomás swapped roles for a performance of Schubert’s ‘Rosamunde’ Quartet, composed in early 1824, which swept aside a volatility driven by wit, replacing it with the agitated yearning of the Romantic soul.  Schubert’s letters reveal that he was profoundly depressed during this period; his syphilis was advancing, bringing with it an undeniable awareness of suffering and mortality.  Schubert had written to Leopold Kupelweiser in early 1823: ‘Imagine a man whose health will never be sound again and who in despair only makes it worse and not better; imagine a man, I say, whose most shining hopes have come to naught, for whom the bliss of love and friendship offers nothing but the greatest pain, for whom the passion for beauty threatens to die away, and ask yourself then if that isn’t one wretched, unhappy man? “My peace is gone, heavy is my heart, find it again shall I never, never again.”  This I can certainly sing now every day, for every night when I go to bed I hope I’ll never wake up.’

The eloquent eeriness of the Allegro ma non troppo certainly chilled my spine, as the Cuarteto Casals conjured a world redolent of Gothic literature and drama; perhaps it was not too fantastical to hear in this interpretation not just the turmoil and distress of the composer’s emotional life but also his frustrated longing for success in the opera house.  Within such darkness, the simplicity of the Andante theme assumed a touching pathos, but one which was never sentimental, and the theme was presented with a disarming directness and ‘open-ness’.

But the shadows resumed with Arnau Tomàs’s wistful, questioning ‘appeal’ at the start of the Menuetto, which was answered with intensity by the upper three voices, as if in an attempt to assuage the melancholy drag of the cello’s entreaty.   Even in the major-key Allegretto trio, the gentle ambience was tinged with tension.  The tempo of the concluding Allegro moderato was steady, with the result that any suggestion that the sturdy, folky dance could dispel anxiety was shadowed by a cloud.  I thought that the Cuarteto Casals wonderfully communicated the essential sadness which imbues the gentility and grace of Schubert’s musical material.  The dynamics were quite subdued; the pianissimos dulcet but also quite fragile.  More explosive passages were quickly subdued and the return of the dance theme had an air of inevitability and stoicism which quickly quelled any seeds of exuberance.  The final fortissimo cadence seemed more an expression of paradoxically defiant resignation than of resolution.

Claire Seymour

 

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