S&H Concert Review

QUATUOR MOSAÏQUES at the Wigmore Hall 10 and 11 February 2001 (IP)

Concert 1: Mozart String Quartet in D major K499 Hoffmeister; Beethoven Quartet in B flat major Op. 130 with Grosse Fuge Op. 133. Concert 2: Mozart String Quartet in C major K157; Beethoven Quartet in F major Op. 135; Mozart Quartet in D minor K421

It does not seem that long ago when any performers working on period instruments were seen as far-out eccentrics, whose work was tangential to the real business of music-making. Happily that situation has changed to a remarkable extent, and as such it is particularly noteworthy that the Wigmore Hall selected for their Centenary Festival the world-renowned period-instrument string quartet Quatuor Mosaïques (Erich Höbarth - violin, Andrea Bischof - violin, Anita Mitterer - viola, Christophe Coin - cello).

The quartet presented three concerts of quartets by Mozart and Beethoven, of which I attended the first two. It is soon clear that the four members of the quartet are all consummate and deeply mature musicians, whose performances combine exceptional instrumental abilities with deep-seated insight into the music they play. I believe most listeners would however be surprised by the extent to which this Central European quartet's performances seem so rooted in the 'tradition', so that overall their interpretations can actually seem more conservative than those of other quartets working on modern instruments. There are many possible explanations for this: the extent to which some aspects of period practice have entered the mainstream or, on the other hand, the fact that a somewhat more pluralist aesthetic climate need not require the didactic counter-interpretations of yesteryear.

Quatuor Mosaïques play on old instruments fitted with gut strings, though retaining chin-rests and spikes. Their use of vibrato is tasteful though quite ample by today's standards of 'classical' playing, and the dynamic and articulative ranges are kept carefully within certain boundaries. All these factors may be a measured response to the particular acoustical properties of the hall; some other 'hardline' period players would maintain highly detached articulations and quiet dynamics even if they stretched the boundaries of audibility. The quartet generally maintains the practice of non-sharpening of the leading note, which opens up new harmonic concepts, especially in the Mozart works. They also choose to emphasise notes as much by accentuation as elongation. The first violinist, more than the other players, tends to use on-string articulations, which on one hand ward off possible harshness, but also can take a certain 'bite' away from the sound. Consequently his part sounded somewhat more rounded than that of the others.

The performance of Beethoven's Op. 130 was one of the most impressive things in the concerts. This interpretation was not didactic, but contained an immense amount of subtlety. While the forte accents occupy a middle ground, the silences contained within the work were allowed to speak as loudly as the notes. The Presto second movement generated a sense of suppressed rage, while the careful articulation of the Andante con moto ma non troppo third movement achieved a sense of monumentality. It can't be stressed strongly enough how important was the quartet's eschewal of exaggerated pathos or rhetoric in the Adagio molto expressivo 'Cavatina' fifth movement, allowing a much greater degree of intimacy than is possible in more soupy performances. They chose to use the Grosse Fuge in place of the usual Finale. Throughout, the quartet demonstrated a penetrating grasp of Beethoven's harmonic complexities. Their interpretation was organic rather than dialectical, stressing the continuities between successive movements. Fast tempos were generally taken more on the slow side, with slow movements also not taken too slow. In this sense it corresponded to more traditional ideals. For my own tastes, I would sometimes prefer greater contrasts between movements in a quartet that seems to me to oscillate between extremes. Nonetheless, that is a personal view, and the conviction with which Quatuor Mosaïques execute their interpretation can silence criticism.

I would love to hear Quatuor Mosaïques, the Arditti Quartet, and a more 'mainstream' quartet such as the Emersons, for example, all play the Grosse Fuge in sequence. Part of the greatness of this music stems from the way in which it allows so many different perspectives.

In Beethoven's shorter and strange quartet Op. 135, the type of sound that the quartet achieved created a sense of joy tinged with sadness, implying Beethoven's sense of his impending mortality. Throughout the work it was clear that the quartet are wary of overstatement or exaggerated rhetoric. They prefer to make their point quietly, inviting the listener to choose to participate rather than cajoling and manipulating them into their way of thinking.

I must confess to a certain lack of sympathy with many of Mozart's string quartets, which clearly set up their own boundaries and rarely move outside of them. The most interesting, and most compelling performance, of the quartets that Mosaïques played was that of the D minor quartet K421. This had a wonderful lilting quality in the first violin's solo in the trio of the third movement, a quality also notable within the 6/8 finale. Within the variation form of this movement, the quartet generated much drama. In the performance of the D major quartet K499, some greater contrast of articulation, especially in the third movement, would have made the work somewhat more interesting to my ears.

What is a little disconcerting is the fact that there is so little eye-contact between the players. I'm sure that they all know these pieces, which they have been touring recently, like the back of their hands, and could play them with their eyes closed; nonetheless, perhaps a somewhat greater degree of spontaneous interaction in performance would not go amiss.

In an interview on BBC Radio 3 in conjunction with a concert the quartet gave at the Cheltenham Festival, one of the players cited as a major influence hearing Nikolaus Harnoncourt give a lecture when they were students. The players all worked with Harnoncourt's Concentus Musicus Wien. Yet in many senses their playing on this occasion was very different from Harnoncourt's 'man-with-a-mission' pioneering, radical and challenging interpretations, with accented downbeats, hard-driven rhythms and striking modernity, causing one not just to re-evaluate the piece in question, but beyond the expectations placed upon music as a whole. The audience at the Wigmore Hall, in which it was a shame that there were only a very few young people, would probably have found little that was controversial in the Quatuor's performances. If this sounds like faint praise, it is not intended as such. I am quite sure that these seasoned players have considered all their interpretative options very carefully; if I sometimes find their performances a little on the traditional side, this is immensely preferable to many attention-seeking gimmicks, in playing and presentation, that can be an unfortunate feature of much music-making today. I look forward to hearing their next appearances in London, and would love to hear their performances of Schubert (recorded on Astrée E8580) live, and perhaps hear how they would approach the quartets of Schumann and Brahms as well.

Ian Pace


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