A splendid Berlin recital by Quatuor Diotima

GermanyGermany Ligeti, Lachenmann, and Brahms: Quatuor Diotima (Yun-Peng Zhao, Léo Marillier [violins], Franck Chevalier [viola], Alexis Descharmes [cello]). Pierre Boulez Saal, Berlin, 19.10.2023. (MB)

Quatuor Diotima © Michel Nguyen

Ligeti – String Quartet No.1, ‘Métamorphoses nocturnes’
Lachenmann – String Quartet No.3, ‘Grido’
Brahms – String Quartet no.2 in A minor, Op.51 No.2

Another splendid string quartet recital in Berlin, to rival or better to complement that I heard last week in a different venue, the Philharmonie’s Kammermusiksaal, from the Quatuor Ébène (review here). One of the mysteries of the musical world is the seeming inability of French symphony orchestras to match those who might be their peers in German- and English-speaking countries. (In some ways, French opera orchestras seem to fare better.) One explanation I have often heard lies in French conservatoire training, where orchestral performance plays little or no role, neglected in favour of a more or less exclusive focus on solo and chamber playing. That may or may not be the case; certainly no one has ever claimed France lacked excellent solo and chamber musicians. These two quartets, the Ébène and Diotima are a case in point, unquestionably among the finest ensembles in the world, with approaches to music-making that are anything but off-the-shelf, very much their own, and with programming to match.

Ligeti is being heard a little more than usual during his centenary, but a work such as his First Quartet, ‘Métamorphoses nocturnes’, would in any case always be central to this ensemble’s repertoire; indeed, a recording was released on Pentatone earlier this year (with the Second Quartet and the earlier Andante and Allegretto). The players immediately conveyed the mood as well as notes of the opening upward slithering, melodies above sounding with Romantic intensity. Bartók’s ghost – Kurtág once called this Bartók’s Seventh Quartet – was often apparent, not least rhythmically — and crucially, in that rhythms were never merely rhythms but rather inseparable from melody. Quicksilver changes of mood, sometimes in transition, sometimes in abrupt cut-off, were vividly characterised: ask someone to guess the marking for the section marked Adagio, mesto and that might be just what (s)he would come up with. Silences told in an almost Beckettian fashion, hinting at the necessity yet something at least approaching the impossibility of speaking, singing, or playing freely. Machines came to life. Notes flew off the page with undeniable physical impact. The waltz movement or section emerged with a sardonicism worthy of Prokofiev and, as throughout, such ears for contrasting textures that at times one might almost have fancied a larger ensemble to be playing. The last few minutes brought the piece together and concluded, in an almost ‘traditional’ way, with not only a nod to Bartók but, in their riot of invention, perhaps also to Haydn.

For all its radicalism, indeed in many ways on account of it, Lachenmann’s Third Quartet could also be heard as taking its place in such a tradition. The Diotima had clearly studied the composer’s notes carefully – without doing so, the piece would surely be unplayable, or at least incomprehensible – whilst also bringing their own imagination and insights. On the one hand, the array of new sounds might give arise to all manner of strange, unworldly associations – extra-terrestrial chatter, perhaps even a game of cosmic table-tennis – or one might, using one’s eyes, less fancifully but with equal incompletion, speak more technically, say of ‘legno flautando whilst moving the bow between the bridge and the left-hand figure’. ‘Gasping’, Lachenmann’s own term, ‘a very strong, almost explosive crescendo up-bow cut off so abruptly by the suddenly intervening application of a left-hand finger to the respective string, lifting the bow at the same time … comparable to a tongue ram on a flute, or a recording of a pizzicato played backwards,’ could not have sounded more like human breath if it had been. Yet not for one moment did this sound as a string of ‘effects’; rather, at-times Stockhausen-like whimsy was projected with Schoenbergian concentration (in more than one sense). And the near silences inevitably brought to mind, without thoughts of imitation, Lachenmann’s own teacher, Nono. Its various sections may not be movements as such, but their structural function was communicated and felt. For if this were almost a textbook case of musique concrète instrumentale, in which one might swear electronics or other means were employed unless one knew they were not, it was highly theatrical too, albeit in the almost classical theatre of the musical imagination.

With Brahms, so much began; and/or with Beethoven, or Bach, or Monteverdi, or …  At any rate, Schoenberg’s now slightly hackneyed yet still necessary ‘Brahms the Progressive’ was represented in an equally gripping account of his Second String Quartet, its first movement febrile and lyrical not only by turn but often simultaneously. Counterpoint, developing variation, and darkly Romantic vehemence when it came gave rise to a not entirely dissimilar sense of metamorphosis such as we had heard in both Ligeti and Lachenmann. A post-Schubertian second movement (the ‘post-’ as important as the Schubert) was no more comfortable than the Ébène’s Schubert had been; the shock of sudden outbursts, themselves owing something to Schubert’s example, was second only to an overarching sense of discovery, tonal areas all possessed of their own character and colour, albeit interconnected. The players captured expertly the unusual character of the third movement, here taking after Mendelssohn as well as Schubert, though with half-lights (perhaps ‘half-darknesses’ would be better?) that could only be Brahms. The central Allegretto vivace, if close to anyone, would perhaps approach late Beethoven, and so it sounded here. It is tempting to call the sense of purpose in the final movement Beethovenian; certainly, it abounds in dialectical relationships that ultimately strengthen. Equally impressive was the communication of demands both horizontal and vertical, not in some ‘theoretical’ sense, whatever that may mean, but as a temporal drama that foreshadows Schoenberg, Webern, and many others: Brahms the progressive indeed.

For a refreshing and spirited encore, we returned to Ligeti, to an arrangement for string quartet of the first of his Six Bagatelles for wind quintet.

Mark Berry

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