United Kingdom Haydn, Bartók, and Beethoven: Endellion String Quartet (Andrew Watkinson, Ralph de Souza (violins), Garfield Jackson (viola), David Waterman (cello)). Wigmore Hall, London, 23.9.2016. (MB)
Haydn – String Quartet in F major, op.77 no.2
Bartók – String Quartet no.3
Beethoven – String Quartet in F major, op.59 no.1, ‘Razumovsky’
There could be no complaints concerning the programming of this Wigmore Hall concert from the Endellion Quartet: three of the greatest string quartets yet – and, we can safely assume, ever – to be written, two F major masterpieces by founding composers of the genre sandwiching Bartók at his most radical.
Haydn’s final completed quartet came first. There was no denying the motivic integrity and integration of the material, whether in the first movement or later on. However close the music might be to Beethoven’s chronologically, and even if there are moments, phrases, which, taken out of context, might be taken for the work of the younger composer, context is all in the work, and so it was in performance too. The development section said all that needed to be said, no more, no less, and indeed that was very much the impression over all, the civilised concision perhaps as suggestive of Brahms, albeit without the pain of his ‘lateness’, as of Beethoven. The Menuetto, a scherzo in all but name, rightly emerged as something stranger than expectations of either might suggest: quite unique, even looking forward in that respect to Bartók’s reinvention of dance forms. At the same time, it still very much was that dance it seemed to be, whatever we might elect to call it. The trio drew one in to listen, again quietly underlining its one-of-a-kind status. If late Beethoven beckoned, that was only because Beethoven continued to owe Haydn a considerable debt. The Andante flowed, sadly at times, albeit without self-pity (never Haydn’s thing), and, as ever, brimmed with invention. Haydn could – and did – continue to surprise us. He did so still more in the finale; the compulsion to originality he is said to have ascribed to isolation at Esterháza endured. There was no self-conscious brilliance to the playing of the Endellion Quartet – perhaps, at times, something a little more brilliant might have been no bad thing, and there were a few intonational slips – but the brilliance of the work was never in doubt.
Bartók’s Third Quartet followed. In the Prima parte, the opening’s involved intricacy and, yes, sheer strangeness registered, if not so strongly as in more intense performances. Again, there were a few intonational issues, but they were soon resolved, and a Bartók in somewhat Bergian guise, refreshingly, intriguingly so, emerged. Not for long, though was the music to be pinned down in that, or any other, manner, for Bartók’s genius here is so protean as to resist being confined by affinity or simile. Like Haydn, as it were. The Seconda parte began with apparent intimations of later Bartók: driven by rhythm, of course, yet just as much by melody; and at least as much by musical process. The same might be said of the Ricapitulazione della prima partie, in memory of what the material had, and had not, been. Greater tension would, I think, have benefited the performance here; I should not wish to exaggerate, though, for there was no waning of attention. The Coda received a committed, even fiery performance; this was so much more than a mere tail-piece, invoking inevitable comparisons with Beethoven.
Beethoven himself was to be heard in the second half, with the first Razumovsky Quartet, a work at least as great as any other ‘middle-period’ Beethoven, of any genre and for any forces. The Endellion Quartet immediately sounded a notch or two more committed, at least in retrospect, the intensity I had missed sometimes in Bartók and Haydn very much present as the first movement opened, in medias res. There was a greater physicality to the playing, a greater sense of the crucial importance of every note and its placing, a greater tonal richness too, though never for its own sake. The counterpoint of the development was both clear and intense; crucially, it developed. So too, just as crucially, did the recapitulation. Not that there was no room therein to enjoy the view; the second group sounded exquisite; it was not, however, only exquisite. Everything mattered in the second movement too. Rhythm only made sense in relation to melody and harmony, and so forth; perhaps that is, on reflection, another way of saying that, again, the material developed as it must. The slow movement I found less successful. I wished it might calm down a little, the unremitting intensity (too much vibrato, unrelieved?) making it difficult to attain the distilled simplicity required. One certainly heard its complexity, but structure remained a little elusive. Tuning was not always what it might have been. The mood of the finale, by contrast, was very well captured, its complexities and simplicities alike. Perhaps some of Beethoven’s surprises were a little underplayed, but that is preferable to exaggeration. There was no doubting the players’ commitment and understanding here.