IMS Prussia Cove Musicians Show How Beethoven Both Baffles and Beguiles

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Beethoven – IMS Prussia Cove Sándor Végh Memorial Concert: Kings Place, London, 14.1.2019. (CS)

Mozart – Adagio and Fugue in C minor K546
Beethoven –
Grosse Fuge in Bb Op.133; String Quartet in C sharp minor Op.131

A few years ago I came across an article entitled How Musicians Prevent Chaos In A String Quartet which discussed research undertaken by a team of scientists and musicians from the UK and Germany who ‘wired two world-class string quartets with microphones plugged into computers running the same kind of program that Wall Street traders use to buy stocks and climatologists use to track and measure atmospheric changes in real time’.  The published findings have a rather less snappy title, Optimal feedback correction in string quartet synchronization, but offer some interesting ideas on ‘musical democracy’ and musicianship.

Cellist Michael Kannen, one of the founding members of the Brentano String Quartet, is reported to have suggested that good musicians don’t need a conductor, and even full symphony orchestras can play well without them.  Such ideas came to mind as I watched the sixteen musicians take their places on the Kings Place stage for this Sándor Végh Memorial Concert, which presented music originally composed for string quartet performed by a string ensemble.

The musicians were all formerly students of IMS Prussia Cove’s founder, the Hungarian violinist Sándor Végh, and many of them participated in recordings, conducted by Végh, in 1987 and 1989 of the two Beethoven works programmed here, which were preceded by Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue. Certainly, no conductor was required: the musicians – who had performed this programme twice during the preceding week, in Cornwall and Bristol – were playing with their ears and not their eyes.  And, if there were nominal, varying, ‘leaders’ (or ‘principals’ as the assigned cellist and viola players were defined), then there was nothing of the orchestral leader’s direction about their demeanour; rather one felt that they were predominantly fostering a spirit of openness and collectiveness.

Both the ensemble and the rhetoric were bold and impressive at the start of Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue, the two movements having been ‘paired’ by Mozart when, in 1788, he added the slow prefatory movement to a fugue he had originally composed for two pianos but which he had subsequently arranged for string quintet forces (two violins, viola, cello and bass).  At Kings Place, the Adagio’s rhythms were strongly articulated and decisive, dynamics finely and unanimously graded, bow strokes perfectly matched.  The overall sound was rather heavy and unyielding, though; the strong staccatos made for a sharply chiselled architecture, but slightly lighter accents might have brought forth the expressive nuances of the harmony.

In the Fugue, while angularity of Mozart’s subject was authoritatively pronounced, again a rather more lithe linearity might have communicated the give-and-take of Mozart’s contrapuntal conversations.  The music is ‘serious’ – the original fugue dates from a period when Mozart was immersed in study of the counterpoint of Bach and Handel – but the challenge is to avoid ‘severity’.  I’d have liked more variation and gradation – say, of the weight of the three pounding crotchets which initiate the subject with a stamping, falling fifth – to alleviate the score’s admittedly rather relentless unfolding.

The octave unisons which open Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge were similarly powerful and austere, though there was immediate contrast in the veiled restraint of the first violins’ eerie quaver-pairs which foreshadow the ensemble’s announcement of the fugal subject.  When the latter got underway, once again the ensemble sound was occasionally strident and the sforzandi punches of the theme and insistent dotted rhythms of the counter-theme almost overwhelming at times.  This is music which can seem to verge on the edge of chaos – a reviewer of the first performance described it as ‘as incomprehensible as Chinese’ – and I remember, as a teenager, hearing the Grosse Fuge for the first time and thinking that the four musicians had gone mad!  But, as that first viewer hoped, familiarity and understanding can make what is initially opaque, ‘clear and pleasing’.  This performance certainly conveyed intellectual and musical insight, and there was a strong sense of order being imposed on material which threatens to propel itself over the edge.  But, Beethoven himself advises his performers that the fugue should be played ‘tantôt libre, tantôt recherchée’ (sometimes with freedom, sometimes with rigour), and I missed that contrast here.  I also found the tone a little dry at times, and noted that the players employed little vibrato.

However, the Meno mosso e moderato section did bring a welcome lyricism and some beautiful phrasing of the arching fragment-motif and extended lines.  In the following Allegro molto, the fragment was transformed with vigour into an earthy riposte to the preceding delicacy, and the trilling ebullience of the playing created a scherzo-like animation.  There was, too, strong appreciation of how to bring coherence to Beethoven’s formal experimentation in the closing stages of the work.

It was Austrian conductor Felix Weingartner who arranged the Grosse Fuge for string orchestra, and if enlarging further a work described by Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s secretary and early biographer, as ‘the monster of all quartet music’ increases the number and degree of the challenges that this musical ‘beast’ issues to those who seek to tame it, then they were bravely and bold tackled here.

There was more fugal austerity after the interval, as the Adagio non troppo e molto espressivo of Beethoven’s C# minor quartet Op.131 unfolded with a strong sense of latent and impending drama imbuing the long, floating lines.  Now the ensemble sound had greater warmth, and the additional voices in each section gave the sound a depth which seemed to evoke the burden of knowledge of the music’s future tragedies.  With startling abruptness, however, there was a brightening of the darkness in the two brief joyful movements which follow, and here was the ‘litheness’ that I had wished for earlier, the various ensemble-sections balancing collaborative unity with independence of spirit.

In the central variations the players seemed finally to relax and to play with greater expressive freedom.  The two violin sections were in perfect accord as they shared the movement’s theme, the celli’s three pizzicato quavers seeming to provide a buoyancy upon which the unfolding lines could glide.  Sentimentality was avoided: the trills of the Andante moderato e lusinghiero variation were by turns exuberant boasts and gruff grumbles.  By the time we arrived at the 9/4 Adagio ma non troppo e semplice, I was beguiled and the gentle grace of the three-notes-to-a bow murmurs deepened the enchantment which held me in its grip through the mad-cap second scherzo, the yearning melancholy of the Adagio quasi un poco Andante, and the of fire and fury of the final Allegro molto, to the final reassurance of the latter’s concluding three C# major chords.

Claire Seymour

Participating musicians:
Violin – Lesley Hatfield, Kjell-Arne Jorgensen, Gabrielle Lester, Anna Lim, Ulrike-Anima Mathé, Peter Matzka, Adelina Oprean, Daniel Phillips; Viola – Tim Boulton, Lila Brown, Werner Dickel, Teemu Kupiainen; Cello – Henrik Brendstrup, Xenia Jankovic, Christoph Richter, Kari Ravnan.

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