Perhaps the Arcanto Quartet Is the Fairest of Them All

United StatesUnited States Purcell, Britten, Beethoven: Arcanto Quaret (Antje Weithaus and Daniel Sepac, violins, Tabea Zimmermann, viola, Jean-Guihen Queyras, cello), Vancouver Playhouse, 18.11.2015 (GN)

Arconto Quartet
Arcanto Quartet

Purcell: Three Fantasias
Britten: String Quartet No. 3 in G major, Op. 94
Beethoven: String Quartet No. 9 in C major, Op. 59, No. 3


It is not often that one hears a less well-known string quartet for a minute or two and concludes decisively that they are at a higher level of accomplishment than virtually all others. Yet that was what I felt at this concert by the Arcanto Quartet. Formed in 2002, the ensemble, who records for Harmonia Mundi, is hardly a household name, even if its members are frequently in the spotlight as soloists: Jean-Guihen Queyras is one of today’s finest young cellists, Tabea Zimmermann has established herself as an illustrious violist with remarkable tonal colour, and there could hardly be a more sensitive and intelligent violinist than Antje Weithaus. Second violin Daniel Sepec has been a force in ‘authentic’ performance, collaborating with the likes of Andreas Staier. The individual exploits of these artists have certainly been more visible than their corporate endeavors.

The ensemble gave a fine concert here in 2010, but I was stunned this time round. Their  remarkably clean and full tone, the individuality of the individual voices, all put together with such disarming technical discipline, makes one sit up immediately. What makes the more enduring impression is their consistent skill in controlling a complex palette of expression, and negotiating it with such intelligence. They always seem to know exactly where they are going and communicate so directly at the highest level of insight. One might place them in the same circle as the Alban Berg Quartet based on their pristine tonal qualities and transparency, though they seem less suave. Moreover, as they often play with little vibrato and such command of soft, fine textures, one might be tempted to place them closer to modernist ensembles that specialize in Berg, Webern and beyond. However, witnessing some of the remarkable intimacy in their quiet playing takes one in the opposite direction – perhaps back to the Vegh Quartet or other elite ‘authentic’ ensembles such as Quatuor Mosaiques. That may not miss the mark either: both Erich Hobarth (Mosaiques) and Tabea Zimmermann had Sandor Vegh as a teacher.

Somewhat adventurously, the first half of the concert explored English music, Purcell and Britten in particular, and it turned out to be a fine choice. There was no mistaking the involvement in their playing of Three Fantasias. This was exceptional in its refinement and purity, yet dug fully into Purcell’s wonderful strain of melancholy. Their rendering was dynamically aware and flexible in flow, with Weithaus’ violin a model of sensitivity and beauty. Perhaps the modern instruments made this too heavy by contemporary standards? Absolutely not: it sounded authentic. Bowing was light and vibrato was sparingly employed; in fact the cellist Queyras hardly used any vibrato at all.

I have always admired Benjamin Britten’s Third Quartet since it was premiered by the Amadeus Quartet just over 40 years ago. For all its obvious ties to the composer’s opera Death in Venice, I have always thought of it as a pure, distilled work, and a grand testimony to the composer’s ingenuity in abstract construction. It is the pure and distilled dimensions which highlighted the Arcanto reading. There was no attempt to find any ‘romantic’ embroidery; this was just musical construction at its most glorious. The only impressionistic reference is to Venice’s water, visualized perhaps as a dock gently rocking in the first movement and softly creaking at the opening of the last. These ‘water’ passages were done splendidly through quite astounding feats of instrumental control, minimalist in expression but conveying exactly how shifting water might sound.

There was a fine sense of development in the first movement which was kept tight and transparent, and never burdened by over-adornment or shaping. One noted how the unanimity of the second violin and viola anchored much of the pacing, and how the first violin could move from stronger attack to a yielding posture so effectively. The second and fourth movements are tougher and more emphatic, but again it was the awareness of the structure of the music, not its brazen power, that stood out. That said, without forcing things at all, the weight and strength of the ensemble’s corporate sound was remarkable. It was the lovely, slow third movement, entitled Solo, that was the highlight, since the ensemble recognized that its feeling is almost disembodied and beyond human sentiment. Their penetration of its parsimonious contours and control over its creeping development was little short of spellbinding. Much the same concentration informed the closing Recitative and Passacaglia, never pushed, always discerning, often intimate, and magnificently portraying the sense of consuming burden that builds toward the end. This was, of course, Britten’s last work.

I enjoyed this performance at least as much as the fine one I saw a few years ago by the Takacs Quartet (now recorded on Hyperion). One wonders how the quartet brought it off, given one adversity: the air conditioning system started adding some musical growls of its own early on, and the performance had to be delayed after the opening movement to investigate. I am not sure that the problem was ever fully solved, and it’s amazing that they could even play the quiet third movement with this distraction.

How would their talents stand out in more conventional repertoire: Beethoven’s Op. 59, No. 3, the most popular of his Razumovsky quartets?  Immediately, I felt as I had at the beginning of the concert: the Arcanto Quartet was almost in a league of their own for all the fascinating thoughtful dimensions combined and the sheer electricity achieved. The Introduzione was suspended in a timeless, searching way, but then it sprang out into the main development with such joy and delight, carrying the motion forward unstoppably. This was certainly powerful, but nothing felt rushed, because the ensemble also built in a strong lyrical flow underneath. The famous Andante, with its cello pizzicato, started with great poise but maintained an intimate scale, again moving out to a lyrical flow that was sometimes almost rhapsodic in feel. Tabea Zimmerman’s viola would cut the texture at times with an unremitting, earthy force, only to settle back into the basic flow again. In this buildup and recovery motion, I was taken unmistakably to the development of the opening movement of Op. 59, No. 1.

One does not usually make too much fuss over the Menuetto transition to the scintillating finale, but this time it was noteworthy: truly an elegant dance in which Beethoven paid homage to his teacher, Haydn. There was considerable lyrical shape and nobility too: the feeling was almost identical to Haydn’s final quartet, Op. 103. The finale had all the white heat it should have, and even if one focused just on execution, this was pretty overwhelming. But it was more than that: the articulation was so precise and the accents so sensitively and carefully placed that it seemed like one intimate conversation with its own autonomous intrigue, no matter how powerful the dynamics and motion were.

Let’s hope that the Arcanto Quartet gains real visibility very soon. Their technical control and tonal output is absolutely at the highest level, but it is their interpretative sense that is really striking. They probe musical complexity with great imagination, and everything seems to come out fresh, revealing and spontaneous.  There is not one trace of contrivance in this playing; it is pure art.

Geoffrey Newman


Previously published in a slightly different form on

Leave a Comment