United Kingdom Haydn, Bartók, Mozart: Arcadia Quartet (Ana Török & Răsvan Dumitru [violins], Traian Boală [viola] Zsolt Török [cello]), Wigmore Hall, London, 27.12.2017. (CS)
Haydn – String Quartet in G Op.33 No.5
Bartók – String Quartet No.1
Mozart – String Quartet in D K.575 (Prussian)
The Arcadia Quartet are aptly named. As defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘in poetic fantasy’, Arcadia ‘represents a pastoral paradise and in Greek mythology it is the home of Pan’ – a utopia, that is, of perfect harmoniousness: consummate, impeccable, immaculate.
From the fullness of the first bars of the Vivace assai which opens Haydn’s String Quartet Op.33 No.5 in G, to the relaxed, joyful coda of Mozart’s String Quartet in D K.575, the Quartet’s sonority – which accommodates both ampleness and airiness – and the pristine grace of their phrasing and expression might have been a musical embodiment of this Arcadian ideal. Leader Ana Török’s supremely polished style; the care and precision which the ensemble bestows on each and every phrase; the flawless evenness of the Quartet’s lyricism; the graciousness and lightness of the players’ articulation; the easeful spaciousness at cadences and turning-points: these qualities combined to make this recital at the Wigmore Hall a perfect post-Christmas digestif.
Haydn’s cheeky prefatory ‘question’ to the Vivace assai was delicately whispered, but the first theme was rich and warm. Cellist Zsolt Török’s relaxed resonance wonderfully underpins the delicacy and judiciousness with which the four players converse, but for all the light elegance of the Arcadia’s sound their playing does not lack dynamism, and each of the varied ideas of the development section created new impetus, without undue emphasis, before Török’s chromatic rising wriggle in the bass ushered in the recapitulation with a smile. The soaring theme in the Largo e cantabile had the grace of a Donizetti aria, as Ana Török’s violin sang with clarity and mellifluousness above the undulating middle voices, the melody punctuated by striking rhetorical unisons. The insouciant brio of the Scherzo: Allegro was charming, while the pianissimo closing cadence teased. The Finale: Allegretto danced dextrously and with carefree ease. Again, when Török’s running semiquavers climbed high, her tone was crystalline, and the phrasing refined.
The Arcadia Quartet began recording the complete Bartók quartets for Chandos Records in September this year, for release in late 2018, and chose to insert Bartók’s First Quartet between the two representatives of Classical wit and grace. From the first, the players brought the quartet’s searching, yearning melodiousness to the fore, the folk-derived motifs and themes flowing in free counterpoint. The two violins’ gentle falling sixths blended beautifully at the start of the Largo, while the cello’s well-focused lyricism provided a strong sense of direction. But, if coalescence dominated, the players did not neglect the varied colours and influences of Bartók’s score, and there were impressionistic passages – as when Traian Boală’s viola slipped through passionate falling phrases above the cello’s drone, while the first fiddle flew high – and episodes where folky germs were as sharply etched as an operatic motif by Janáček.
Strongly defined rhythmic and melodic contours in the second movement Allegretto made for compelling dialogue and the contrapuntal episodes culminated in arresting punctuating chords and unison conclusions. Perhaps the players might have more prominently conveyed the growing agitation of this long movement, but towards the close the cello’s repeated-note pizzicatos, deep on the C string, had a lovely grainy, twangy resonance, forming a striking contrast to Zsolt Török’s beautiful, haunting cantilena in the introduction to the Allegro vivace. In the latter, the expressive interludes which interrupt the driving, paired quavers of the dance were never overly sentimental; the expansive unison episodes which become ever more dominant towards the close were impressively focused and there was a strong sense of expansion and freedom as the movement pushed forward to the exuberant close.
The Allegretto of Mozart’s Prussian Quartet in D (K.575) began with gentle graciousness, as the first violin passed the broad, arcing theme courteously to the viola, but vigour was injected by the first violin’s incisive racing semiquavers, the airy staccato of the middle voices beneath, and the curling triplets which ornament the melody. Dynamic contrasts, robust accents, changing textures and moods created a lively restlessness, but one which communicated curiosity rather than instability. Moreover, peace and comfort were restored in the Andante which sang with the harmonious concordance of an ensemble of reconciliation from Così. The sense of balance was enhanced when ‘questions’ posed were affirmatively ‘answered’, and at the close poise and satisfaction prevailed. The Arcadia refrained from exaggerating the surprising accents and harmonic nuances of the Menuetto, perhaps sometimes at the expense of the inherent drama of the music, but dynamic contrasts and an incisive unison timbre created interest. Once again, Török’s high cello line sang beautifully. The joyfulness of the final Allegretto steered shy of extrovert exuberance, and while the semiquavers of the development section fizzed lightly, there never seemed any danger that the bubbles would explode from the bottle.
The Arcadia Quartet did enter the ‘party spirit’ with an encore, based upon a Romanian folk-song, which encouraged the players to let their hair down with some hand-clapping, foot-stamping and vocal yelps. Overall, if there are perhaps Quartets who bring more risk and radicalism to their interpretations, on this occasion the assurance and refinement of the Arcadia Quartet were just right, after the excesses of the festive season.