This disc has obviously been recorded as something
of a showpiece for this young all-female quartet, who hail from Cologne,
Paris and Amsterdam, and who formed in 1992. With various awards already
to their credit, they have performed with (among others) Ian Bostridge
and Julius Drake, and given concerts and made radio recordings all over
It’s an interesting programme, and it’s a pity no attempt
is made (if not to justify it) to tie up the disparate elements which
are contained within it. Another 20th century piece instead of the Haydn
would have made up an attractively diverse package written within 100
years. Or a 19th century piece in place of the Feldhandler would have
given us a slice through the history of the medium, from one who established
the tradition – Haydn – to one who seriously challenged it – Webern.
Op 42 is in many ways the odd man out among Haydn’s
quartets: a solitary quartet in the midst of groups of mainly six (Op
9, 17, 20, 33, 54, 55 and 64) or sometimes three (Op 71, 74 and 76).
And ‘solitary’ describes its mood: it’s dark but quietly affirmative,
in no way comparable with other more anguished minor key works of earlier
and later date, but by no means a lightweight either.
The Debussy is a one-off too. Cast more in the Phrygian
mode than a true G minor, it’s an early piece which owes much to Frank’s
cyclical processes: and yet (not at all surprisingly) it has long since
enjoyed a prominent place in every quartet’s repertory, and (famously,
even controversially) was to influence Ravel when he came to compose
Webern’s Bagatelles date from the early years
of atonalism. Like so many of his pre-war miniatures, they are abstract
but intensely concentrated and expressive sound-pieces, which demand
much of both performer and listener. As baffling and as fascinating
today as they were 90 years ago, they mean something (but what?) somewhere
between nothing and everything. The world wasn’t the same place from
the moment they were written or first heard – and there’s not much music
of which that can be said with comparable confidence!
Judging by the summary words written in the CD booklet
of Feldhandler, you’d be forgiven for expecting another (there were
lots of them…) post-Webernite – "a piece … in which notes, extent,
dynamic, development and even symmetry come into their own … which owes
its existence to the belief that music can be used to express something
that is normally expressed in words". Being based on Celan’s poem
Entführung, and being the first part of an intended trilogy,
I anticipated drawing parallels with Birtwistle’s Pulse Shadows,
the origins of which are superficially similar. But Feldhandler’s piece
is a lot less complex and a good deal more accessible: its wide-ranging
moods are contained within a strongly harmonic framework in which there
is little conventional tonality, but much gravitating to recurring pitches.
You might think some of the ‘effects’ are overdone after hearing the
Webern Bagatelles, where repetition is so starkly controlled.
The Rubin Quartet play well: very well. The
Haydn displays a classical restraint but plenty of emotional commitment
– never an easy balance to strike. The Debussy receives a warmly sympathetic
performance, wanting only in greater unanimity of ensemble and articulation
at some of the big tutti moments. Webern’s shocking contrasts,
weird colourings and angular outbursts are expertly done: technically,
they are on top of this music, and they clearly identify with its idiom
too. Likewise the Feldhandler.
If you’re bored with all-Haydn programmes, or the ‘standard’
Debussy-Ravel coupling, this enterprising disc is well worth exploring.
It’s an absorbing recital from a group I feel certain we’ll be hearing
more of: a space worth watching…
Peter J Lawson