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Webern, Mozart, Beethoven: Arcanto Quartet. Wigmore Hall, London 21.2.2011 (GD)

Six Bagatelles Op. 9

Mozart: String Quartet in D minor K 421

Beethoven: String Quartet in F Op. 59 No. 1 'Razumovsky'

Formed in 2002 the Arcanto Quartet has made its mark on the international concert scene, receiving glowing reviews both of their recitals and of the CDs they have made. Tonight's programme was well conceived as it included Mozart's only minor key work in the group of six quartets dedicated to Haydn he wrote in 1783, preceded by Webern's Six Bagatelles. Both works, although emanating from totally different historical contexts, are notable for their chromatic innovations and economy of form. Of course, economy of form is taken to its extreme in the Webern work. The Six Bagatelles are quite remarkable in their range of harmonic daring, traversing all twelve notes of the chromatic spectrum; but also in their staggering contrast with each other, and the extraordinary quartet textures they encompass - the outer movements played with muted bowing. And the sudden outburst of dissonance at the end of the second Bagatelle had something of a shock effect. All this, plus some some amazingly elliptical, prismatic transitions, was delivered with amazing empathy and alacrity.

In K 421 the opening Allegro moderato sounded both natural and flowing, but also registering the darker minor key undertones of the music, starting with the falling octave of the main theme. The plunge into the harmonic clashes of the development section were given an added sense of disturbed urgency and textural clarity by being played at the correct tempo. The sustained D minor recaptitulation proceeded in contrast to, but with, the same chromatic drive, as the preceding development section. All the repeats in this movement were observed, including the repeat of the development section. The composer indicated these repeats and I think it is right, as in most current performance practice, to observe them. Curiously, the repeat of the development section in the final movement was omitted. The F major andante gained from being sustained as a real andante with movement, and with all the contrasting and sharp chromatic statements making their full effect. This chromatic intensity was carried over into the canonic harmonic clashes of the Menuetto. The finale's variations in the 6/8 meter of a siciliano, with the contrasting moments of intimate sadness, were beautifully realised.

As with the Mozart, the Beethoven Op. 59 No. 1, gained enormously from being played virtually as written. The opening F major theme flowed with a lyricism that unfolded naturally without ever sounding contrived, and with an absolute minimum of rubato. But when rubato was employed it was done with great subtlety, as in the cellos' deceptively tentative lead-in to the extended development section, a development section which here stands in for the exposition repeat. All the rhythmic shifts and contrasts in the B flat scherzo were miraculously integrated with the second theme's F minor. And in more than most recent performances I have heard, the rounds of melodic figurations juxtaposed on solo instruments anticipated a stylistic innovation which would fully develop in the late quartets. The 'magnificently sombre' F minor Adagio was beautifully contoured. It was certainly an Adagio molto, but it never dragged, the Arcantos never forgetting that Beethoven's slow movements are never slow in the later 'Romantic' sense. In the initial paragraphs here I would have welcomed a little more sotto voce, but the ornamented development section sounded wonderful in its harmonic opulence. The brilliant cadenza-like lead-in to the exuberant finale from the slow movement's coda had all the inevitability of Beethoven's later transitions. The finale's Russian tune was given a compelling buoyancy tonight - as was energetic coda, the themes of which develop from the fanfare-like the motive originally stated in the Theme Russe.

Geoff Diggines


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