The Eroica Quartet, founded in
1993 and exclusive Harmonia Mundi USA artists, provide a refreshing
slant on familiar music (their web-site, www.eroicaquartet.com,
is due to go live on October 1st). In studying in detail
editions contemporary or near-contemporary with the composition dates
of the music they play, they have unearthed a gateway to informed period
performance practice (an interesting reversal of the Urtext phenomenon
in musicology, which seeks to strip away previous editorial intrusions).
Their researches have discovered a style that uses less vibrato than
is the norm, includes (judicious) portamenti and does not shy
away from open strings mid-phrase. This is not to mean that expression
is shorn away: quite the opposite, it would seem.
The effectiveness of their endeavours,
as it turned out, was immediately apparent in the very opening of Schumannís
A minor Quartet of 1842, where there was clear independence of lines
within a prevailing Schumannesque warmth. The ebb and flow of Schumannís
argument, blessed by the Eroicaís textural clarity, emerged completely
naturally. The Scherzo was quite raw (it certainly made one sit up and
listen). All four parts were tremendously vital.
The account of the third movement,
an Adagio, was dedicated to the violistís wife who had tragically died
of cancer in March. Alongside Schumannís intense innigkeit, the
daring writing was exposed for all itís worth, enabling one to appreciate
Schumannís unique explorations even more. If only the quartet had utilised
a true pianissimo, this would have been a heart-stopping rendition.
The finale (Presto) was the only movement where technique became an
issue, but any memories of slips were effectively deleted by the daring,
sudden slow passage that Schumann inserts near the very end.
The Eroica Quartet has put down
all three of Schumannís Op. 41 Quartets on Harmonia Mundi USA HMU907270
(with a playing time of 78í50!).
Schumannís quartet is dedicated
to Mendelssohn, so it was fully apposite that the latterís F minor Quartet,
Op. 80 (1847) followed on prior to the interval. This quartet is Mendelssohnís
last and dates from the final year of his life. It was composed in response
to his sister Fannyís death in May of that year and as a result is imbued
with an intensity not usually associated with this composer. The ominous
tremolandi of the opening, in fact, almost sound like a reduction
from one of this composerís String Symphonies (and perhaps the tension
comes partly from this: an effect seemingly attempting to transcend
its own boundaries). The tremolandi sounded almost menacing,
and the first violin figuration had a most un-Mendelssohnian determination
about it. But given the circumstances of its composition, this is all
entirely apposite. Mendelssohn at his most concentrated is gripping
indeed, even at times uncomfortable.
The Scherzo was the same from
this point of view, restless with a shifting Trio. It seemed to be trying
to dance without ever quite making it, a really disturbing effect. The
continuing intensity of the finale meant this was hard listening: the
interval was our just reward. Again, the quartet has recorded Mendelssohn
for Harmonia Mundi USA (two volumes of their ongoing series have been
released, neither alas including Op. 80).
So to the core of the string quartet
repertoire with Schubertís great ĎDeath and the Maidení Quartet (1824).
Some of the tuning problems that had surfaced from time to time in the
first half recurred here. Despite a good sense of contrast and some
real dynamism, their Schubert exhibited a literalism that refused to
let any daylight in. There was also a tendency to rush towards climaxes,
a surprisingly immature interpretative reaction to the score.
The famous Variation movement
was in general better. The vibrato-less opening was ghostly and disembodied
(and possibly the first true pianissimo of the evening); the
first violinís Ďimprovisationsí over the theme in pizzicato cello was
a lovely effect. But the tuning gremlins returned sporadically, and
while the approach to the climax approached an elemental fury, the climax
itself nearly disintegrated. Only the determined gait of the Scherzo
and the intense journey of the finale (with a really manic coda) rescued
this curious performance.
Moving informed historical musicology
into the sphere of real auditory experience is only to be encouraged,
especially when the results are as consistently illuminating as in the
present instance. On a personal note, what a relief to return to the
civilised Wigmore after the much more public spectacle of the Proms!.
A note on acoustics. It would
appear the Wigmoreís policy on tickets for reviewers has gone from putting
us near the back to putting us right at the very back. Tucked away there,
one is under an overhang which does act as a small acoustic trap, taking
away some of the immediacy of the sound.