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Seen and Heard Recital Review

Berg, Lyric Suite & Schubert, String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D810 “Death and the Maiden”, Alban Berg Quartet, Queen Elizabeth Hall, 24th February, 2005 (T J-H)

It is a rare occasion indeed when the Alban Berg Quartet actually plays a quartet by Alban Berg: in fact, the Lyric Suite of 1925-26 – written as a sort of coded love letter to Berg’s mistress Hanna Fuchs-Robettin – is hardly even a string quartet in the traditional sense. Cast in six disparate movements and covering a wide range of moods and styles, it is peppered with symbolic musical quotations and allusions to their illicit affair. Its diversity of expression is both a boon and a hindrance, however, for although it makes for an excellent showcase of a quartet’s capabilities, its unconventional narrative can, in lesser hands, sound more than a little disjointed.

Thankfully, there are few greater hands in the quartet business than those of the Alban Berg Quartet, and on Thursday they gave the sort of well-crafted, intelligent interpretation of this eponymous masterpiece that we’ve come to expect from them. Conceiving the six alternating fast and slow movements as a single crescendo of growing intensity, their performance began with an Allegretto gioviale that was exactly what it said on the box and ended with a Largo desolato which was as emotionally complex as a late Beethoven quartet. Along the way, the ABQ delivered an astonishing wealth of sounds and textures, from a literally breathtaking pianissimo chord in the middle of the second movement to the skeletal, washed-out sound of col legno bowing in the Presto delirando fifth movement. Intonation was preternaturally accurate throughout, even when playing the violent staccato accents of that penultimate Presto; but as laudable as their technical achievements were, it was their commitment to – and clear love of – the music that came across most strongly. Leader Günter Pichler swayed back and forth in his chair, occasionally leaving it altogether in order to squeeze the last drop of feeling out of an angular, 12-tone melody, while the other three players followed his lead in delivering beautiful, emotionally freighted passages that totally belied the complex serialism at the Suite’s heart. It was a performance that in its fusion of intelligence and real feeling perfectly captured the genius of their patron saint’s art, and as such won an enthusiastic response from the QEH audience.

The evening was rounded out with an equally spectacular performance of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet. Here, the intensity level was white hot from the very beginning, and the semiquaver passagework that dominated the first movement was especially fast and furious, cutting like a razor-blade across the cosy Viennese dance tune that was the second subject. The Theme of the second movement’s Theme and Variations was played relatively fast and slightly sul tasto, making it sound like a ghostly reminiscence of the Allegretto from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony; it was followed by a set of variations that once again showed off the ABQ’s mastery of large-scale forms, each variation following on as a natural consequence of its predecessor. The last two movements were typified by a violence normally associated with the music of Berg’s era rather than Schubert’s, but it was a highly effective approach that lent the music a heightened immediacy. Indeed, it was a remarkably coherent performance all round and the blistering rush of notes in the finale’s dance of death was as exciting as it comes. Rapturous applause greeted the foursome after their last perfectly synchronised chord and, hardened professionals though they are, they couldn’t help but look pleased with themselves as they took their bows. As well they might, for it is a rare and difficult thing to communicate the music of two such different composers as effectively and as convincingly as this; but communicate they did, and with a clarity of purpose and of expression that most musicians can only dream about.

Tristan Jakob-Hoff

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