Superb Artistry, Impeccable Technique, and Three Encores from the Modigliani Quartet

United StatesUnited States Mozart, Shostakovich, and Beethoven: Modigliani Quartet, Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 12.2.2016 (BJ)

Mozart: String Quartet in D minor, K. 421
Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 1, Op. 49
Beethoven: String Quartet in F minor, Op. 95, Quartetto serioso

Having first encountered the Modigliani Quartet in Montreux in 2007, I have since then counted myself a warm admirer, and the original positive impression I gained of these four young Frenchmen’s artistry was amply confirmed two seasons ago in Seattle. The well-planned Philadelphia Chamber Music Society concert now under review was again a resounding success.

It was enhanced by the presence on the program of two masterpieces from the Austro-German classical school, both of them in the minor mode, but differing illuminatingly in their handling of key. The Beethoven culminated with an almost frivolous ending in the major, and the Mozart evinced that composer’s characteristic if not always recognized fatalism with its uncompromising D-minor conclusion. Mozart was a man who, as he declared in a letter, never went to bed without reflecting that the night in question might well be his last—a thought that it is hard to imagine expressed by Beethoven, who challenged fate indefatigably rather than condescending to submit to it.

Violinists Philippe Bernhard and Loïc Rio, violist Laurent Marfaing, and cellist François Kieffer responded to these contrasting artistic qualities with total conviction. With characteristics of tone sufficiently varied from one to another yet blending perfectly, they also deployed the impeccable technical control that led me to remark on one of those previous occasions that “It takes an ensemble like the Modigliani Quartet to remind one that, rather like the more elite denizens of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, some quartets are more in tune than others…There is a world of difference between ‘around the note’ and ‘smack in the middle of it.’” The result, with these superb players, is that even passages that previously seemed knotty and impenetrable suddenly take on a pristine clarity, all supposed problems magically resolved.

Shostakovich’s First Quartet is perhaps the least profound of the fifteen essays he eventually contributed to the genre, but here too the Modiglianis’ intensity and zest made a more arresting experience of it than usual.

After their exhilarating dash through the coda of the Beethoven quartet, they gave us no fewer than three encores: Puccini’s Crisantemi, a once popular Andante cantabile from a string quartet by Roman Hofstetter that used to be attributed to Haydn, and a diverting all-pizzicato piece by Leroy Anderson that rejoices in the title Plink, Plank, Plunk—thus demonstrating, as a correspondent observed to me after the concert, “not only their generosity… but also that they don’t take themselves too seriously.” Among the several fine quartets that have played for PCMS this season, I do not think there is one that could be called superior to the Modigliani.

Bernard Jacobson

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