A Welcome Chance to Hear Schumann’s String Quartets

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schumann: Modigliani Quartet [Amoury Coeytaux, Loïc Rio (violins); Laurent Marfaing (viola); François Kieffer (cello)]. Wigmore Hall, London, 15.5.2016 (CC)

String Quartet in A minor, Op. 41/1 (1842)
String Quartet in F major, Op, 41/2 (1842)

The Modigliani Quartet was formed in 2003 and this is, I believe, my first encounter with them. Or three quarters of the quartet, at least, as Philippe Burnhard, the first violinist, was replaced at late notice by Amoury Coeytaux (whose forename I misheard as “Anne-Marie”, so imagine my surprise when a gentleman walked on stage in the first violin position). Coeyteux was a happy substitution in the end: except for a couple of tricky corners, it would be difficult if not impossible to hear, listening blind, that there was anything amiss and that these players were not the regular line-up.

Schumann’s chamber music is beautiful, and deserves far more exposure than it gets. It was delightful that we had two major pieces here, with the Adagio of the Third Quartet (Op. 41/3) offered as an extended, and very welcome, encore. But it was the meat of the concert that cemented the stature of these quartets.

Firstly, we heard the A minor, the gorgeous counterpoint of the Introduzione superbly rendered (and the interaction between the two upper voices mirrored later in the music by a contrapuntal dialogue between viola and cello). Textures were carefully balanced in this serene and lyrical account – the textures were, on more than one occasion, luminous, and in mood terms the balance between severe and lyric was expertly managed. True, the opening anacrusis of the Scherzo would probably have been together with the original quartet line-up, but the Adagio was remarkable throughout. The cello ascent that opens this movement was seamless in the hands of François Kieffer, before a theme that initially seems to refer to the slow movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is ushered in. Kieffer’s cantabile later on was most affecting, as was violist Laurent Marfaing’s way with an off-beat accompanying figure, lifting the mundane to the sublime. The frenetic finale, with its angst-laden initial gesture had plenty of energy, while a drone, hinted at earlier in the piece, comes into its own here.

The second quartet of Op. 41 takes us to the major mode. The warmth of sound on offer at the start brought us into a different world in which resides unutterable gentleness. The music seemed to want to veer off into Ländler at times. Here, the slow movement is placed second, an Andante quasi variazioni that showed just how hypnotic a perfectly controlled pianissimo can be. The easy fluency, the later shifting shadows and the whole beautiful panel of the quartet came across with a perfect sense of assurance. Again, perhaps the substitute violinist was not quite as accurate as he could have been in the opening of the Presto Scherzo, but there is no denying that rhythmic play was very well done throughout; the helter-skelter Allegro molto vivace held great character. The encore was simply beautiful, expressive and glowing.

Colin Clarke

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