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Mozart & Bartók: Alban Berg Quartet, QEH, 08.05.2006 (CC)

Always welcome visitors here in London, the Alban Berg Quartet (ABQ) seem to be the epitome of professionalism and style. The most recent member is Isabel Charisius, and she has already made a significant difference to this most august of ensembles.

Two Mozart quartets comprised the first half here – the D minor, K421 and the so-called 'Hoffmeister', K499. Both were more than expertly dispatched, but it was the presence of the newest member of the quartet, violist Isabel Charisius, that seemed to inject a youthful quality to the readings, almost breathing new life into the playing. Only in the Andante of the D minor was there a feeling hat outbursts could be more primal – as if to compensate, the Menuetto was distinctly on the gritty side, itself contrasting with the Trio, a half-Ländler with a pizzicato accompaniment that emerged as semi-remembered, as if in a dream.

As far as the great 'Hoffmeister' was concerned, it was the Adagio that found the ABQ truly on home ground, with moments of real magic. It provided the most intense passages of all the Mozart, the sforzato-ridden finale seemingly trying to forcibly shrug off the preceding internalizations. Yet there was humour here, too, as cheekiness surfaced in the first movement.

Bartók's final quartet (1939) was the composer's last major work before he headed for New York. All of its movements begin with a section marked 'Mesto', a feeling encapsulated by Charisius' wonderfully emotive opening lament. The ABQ's attention to detail was near-miraculous, for the blending of the ensuing chords subtly highlighted the viola's role. If the second movement's Marcia could have been more of a nightmarish parody, other elements in the quartet did tend towards the outrageous (especially some very Soldier's Tale-like passages). The Sixth Quartet requires – and received – huge concentration. It seems the ABQ is incapable of the routine, and maybe it is that that more than anything keeps the crowds coming.

Colin Clarke




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