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Mozart & Bartók Alban Berg Quartet. QEH, 13.2. 2006 (CC)


Quite an amazing occasion this, typical of the ABQ's concerts on the South Bank which have always been a regular source of delight and illumination - they were an Associate Artist of the SBC for over fifteen years! Though the quartet's world was thrown on its head in July 2005 with the untimely death of its violist, Thomas Kakuska, his wish was that the group should continue after his passing and he nominated the present violist, his student Isabel Charirius, as his successor. She is a remarkable artist with an assertive musical character that nevertheless blends perfectly into the ABQ sound.

They gave Mozart and Bartók for this occasion, two composers who work superbly together in a shared programme. Despite their different sound-worlds (brought closer perhaps with the inclusion of Mozart's 'Dissonance' Quartet) both are absolute masters of the quartet medium, equal in enjoying the ability to present a flow of ideas that is as masterly as it is seemingly inevitable.

The G major Quartet, K387 is the first of the so-called 'Haydn' Quartets and despite being bowled over by the new viola player's excellence, there seemed to me to be some interpretative indecision in the first movement. It felt as if the quartet could not decide whether to be over-serious or, indeed, to let the music smile - the 'open-air' confidence that Julian Haylock speaks of in his programme notes was perhaps slightly under a tarpaulin. The sophistication of the Minuet suited the quartet far better and while the Andante cantabile (the slow movement is placed third here) had some distinct patches of cloud as opposed to the 'sunlit radiance' that the programme promised – it was all the more powerful for them.

The quartet's leader, Günter Pichler, has given me cause for concern before. His tone can seem harsh sometimes (and indeed did so in the earlier stages of the work) and accents were occasionally stabbed at but he seemed to 'warm in' as he went on.

Bartók's Second Quartet (1914-17) is a masterpiece. What Haylock describes as 'the cool glow of the dying embers of Romanticism' in the first movement was presented instead by the ABQ as a real expressionist angst. There was more than a hint of the Schoenbergian here. Pichler's stabbing, held in check since the first movement of K387, returned somewhat disappointingly, but was compensated by the contained energy of the inner parts. (Charisius incidentally, proved to be the loudest quartet-member violist I have ever heard.) The momentum of the fairly fierce Allegro molto capriccioso acted as appropriate contrast to the icy stasis of the final Lento. Here there seemed to be an infinity of pain, a tremendous sense of loss displayed by design and to great effect. Every second of was hypnotic and it is perfomances like these that makes the ABQ a great quartet.

The slow introduction to Mozart's 'Dissonance' quartet did seem something of a bridge back to the eighteenth century, but less so than it might have done in other players' hands. The ABQ laid emphasis on Mozart's advanced part-writing more than on the isolated dissonances per se – something that made Mozart's achievement seem all the more remarkable. The unashamedly big-boned passages of the first movement proper had their contrasting counterparts too, so that this was a whole world in one movement.

The gorgeous outpouring of the Andante cantabile was infused with a very human warmth (astonishingly sotto voce); the Menuetto sat precisely midway between Haydnesque play and Beethovenian rough spirits leading to a finale infused with humanist light. The incredible encore – the Adagio molto from Bartók's Fifth Quartet – was dedicated to Kakuska's memory. There could surely have been no more moving tribute.

Colin Clarke





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