Belenus Quartet
Haydn / Beethoven

Kirche St.Peter, Zurich, 2021-09-05

3.5-star rating

2021-09-11 — Original posting


Belenus Quartet @ St.Peter, Zurich, 2021-09-05 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Belenus Quartet @ St.Peter, Zurich, 2021-09-05 (© Rolf Kyburz)

Table of Contents


Introduction

Venue, Date & TimeKirche St.Peter in Zurich, 2021-09-05 17:00 (& 15:00)
Series / TitleNeue Konzertreihe Zürich, Streichquartette in der Kirche St.Peter
Wir machen Konzert (We Do Concerts)
OrganizerHochuli Konzert AG
Reviews from related eventsConcerts in this Series
Concerts at Kirche St.Peter, Zurich

The Artists

The Belenus Quartet emerged in 2004. It features the following artists:

  • Seraina Pfenninger (*1987, Zurich), violin
  • Anne Battegay (*1988, Zurich), violin
  • Esther Fritzsche (*1986, Lörrach, Germany), viola
  • Jonas Vischi (*1988, Weingarten, Germany), cello

Seraina Pfenninger and Esther Fritzsche (initially playing violin) were among the founding members of the ensemble, then still students aged 17 and 18. In 2011, Esther Fritzsche switched to the viola, while Anne Battegay took over the position of second violinist. Jonas Vischi joined the ensemble in 2014. The name Belenus Quartet refers to Belenus, the Celtic god of the arts.

All members of the Belenus Quartet have experience with playing in various orchestras. As ensemble, the Belenus Quartet has attended master classes with members of numerous top-class string quartet formations. The list of teachers / instructors reads like a “who is who?” in the world of string quartets! Still now, they receive coaching by Rainer Schmidt (*1964) of the Hagen Quartet, and by Claudius Herrmann (*1967) of the Gringolts Quartet. The quartet’s respectable repertoire ranges from early Haydn quartets up to contemporary music.

Rather than trying to list the ensemble’s concert career, their achievements at competitions, all their teachers, their recordings, let alone the individual artist’s biographies, let me simply refer to the ensemble’s Website (both English and German).


Program

The program of the concert—performed twice on that day, see below—featured two compositions with seemingly “incompatible” name attributes:


Setting, etc.

The COVID-19 restrictions required the organizer to work with a protection plan (Schutzkonzept). One option would have been go through the effort of requiring (and checking) COVID-certificates, and then filling the nave as usual. The other option (selected here) was, not to require certificates, but rather to work with a fraction of the seating capacity and physical distancing.

In compensation for the limited capacity, the concert was offered in two instances: 15:00 and 17:00. This imposes a limit on the duration of the program, and it also requires the musicians to do “twice the work”. However, I personally (as a listener) find this solution preferable by far. Not the least because it improves the visibility of the musicians for listeners in the nave. I enjoyed the privilege of a seat on the organ balcony (and a good view onto the ensemble, ideal for taking photos). Many thanks to the organizer!


Concert & Review

Haydn: String Quartet in E♭ major, op.33/2, “The Joke”

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809) was the “father of the symphony” with over 100 works in that genre. On top of that, he also “invented” the genre of the string quartet, writing around 70 such works. Among these, the six quartets were composed in 1781 and published as op.33 (Nos.29 – 34). They are sometimes called the “Russian Quartets“, as they were dedicated to the Grand Duke Paul of Russia (1754 – 1801). Three of the six works have “nicknames”:

The difference between chronological quartet numbering, the Hoboken catalog, and the composer’s sequence within the published opus just causes confusion. Neither the “overall quartet number”, nor the Hoboken catalog index are typically in use today. For the string quartets, people generally just use Haydn’s opus numbers.

The Movements

The String Quartet in E♭ major, op.33/2 consists of four movements:

  1. Allegro moderato, cantabile
  2. Scherzo: Allegro
  3. Largo sostenuto (B♭ major)
  4. Finale: Presto

The nickname “The Joke” refers to the ending of the last movement, where Haydn tricks the audience into believing that the piece is over. After a long pause, he adds extraneous material (Adagio). Another pause follows, then the Presto returns—just in bits, again separated by long pauses. Typical Haydn!

The Performance

I was pleased to note that the Belenus Quartet followed the example of top-of-the-line ensembles such as the Gringolts Quartet, the Artemis Quartet and others by performing standing. I’m convinced that this is more than a “momentary fashion” (let alone a “marketing gag”!). It frees the musicians (violin, viola) from the physical constraints of a chair or bench. And with that extra motion freedom, the interaction between the musicians, and hence the performance gains liveliness, freedom of expression. The cellist of course must remain seated—more on that below.

Anne Battegay offered a warm welcome, and she gave a brief introduction to the works. That wasn’t just informative (preparing the audience)—it also relaxed the atmosphere, released any tension that might have existed on the part of the musicians.

The ensemble performed on modern instruments, i.e., metal (e”) strings, Tourte type bows.

I. Allegro moderato, cantabile

My first reaction: instant delight! Some of this is of course Haydn’s merit. The light, transparent textures in this movement are ideal for the church acoustics. However, for the most part, it’s what the four musicians made out of Haydn’s score, and the ensemble’s playing!

The technique of the ensemble was flawless. Yet, the quartet never sounded exceedingly polished. The artists selected a fluent tempo (focusing on the Allegro aspect, rather than moderato), light articulation, natural playing with little—if any—vibrato. Throughout the concert, there was no sign of Nachdrücken.

I enjoyed the swaying agogics, the verve and emphasis in sforzandi, the brief f outbreaks, and the occasional portamento (especially from Seraina Pfenninger at the first violin). It all added up to an atmospheric experience, a really harmonious overall impression. The tempo management was excellent: there never was a moment where the musicians dropped the tension or lost momentum.
★★★½

Sonority and Acoustics

I knew from earlier (solo and quartet) recitals that the acoustics in the Kirche St.Peter are particularly favorable for the lower string instruments (cello and viola). This proved true again in this concert. Jonas Vischi’s cello had no problem “filling the venue” with its warm, full-bodied sound. Also Esther Fritzsche’s viola saw it’s warm and full timbre supported, even highlighted in this church. The acoustics of course also carry / support the sound of the violins. In fact, I found that the four instruments were fitting very well, formed a harmonious ensemble, with a characterful, warm sonority.

The only drawback for the violins is that the reverberation is affecting, partly defeating the clarity in the articulation. I would not call this a problem here. However, at least in the rear of the nave it occasionally created the impression that short notes were in danger of being “swallowed” (e.g., in the Allegro moderato). A little extra lightness / clarity in the articulation, or (more likely) a slightly slower tempo might have helped counter-acting such “acoustic blurring”.

II. Scherzo: Allegro

The Scherzo: light, dancing, joyful—excellent! Throughout the movement, I noted the careful, diligent dynamics. And then the Trio—true fun! Here, Seraina Pfenninger went beyond portamento—she applied rather conspicuous glissandi at numerous (appropriate) locations in her part. I really enjoyed these—they fit the folksy / peasant dance character of that movement.

The artists not only performed both repeats in the Scherzo and the Trio, but also in the Da capo instance of the Scherzo. That helped the overall proportions of the work, as the movement otherwise is rather short (relative to the others).
★★★★

III. Largo sostenuto

The first eight bars offered a chance to enjoy the warm, well-rounded, singing sonority of Esther Fritzsche’s viola. Jonas Vischi’s cello accompaniment was discreet, but still harmoniously supportive. In the following bars the two violins repeat the theme an octave higher. They, too, played with subtlety, in perfect harmony / accordance. Throughout this movement, I enjoyed the Belenus Quartet’s excellent intonation purity. Note that I don’t make concessions for ensembles playing with little or no vibrato. The latter typically obscures the intonation, while “flat” tones reveal any impurity.

Jokes in the Largo?

The Largo starts as a serene, peaceful, serenade-like movement. However, Haydn could of course not leave it at that: he introduces string contrasts, first with pronounced f chords, then reinforced, ff. Such accents return throughout the movement. I think they are more than wake-up calls. The danger of listeners falling asleep here is minimal!

I was wondering whether this really is a first joke by the composer? If so, I could picture these interjections being presented as more of a caricature, a strong joke (a “Kiste”, as Germans might call it)? Well, maybe the Belenus Quartet feared being too extravagant in their interpretation? Did they feel that the folksy Trio and the obvious joke in the Finale already did justice to the nickname? I’m just asking the question here—the interpretation of this movement was excellent already as such…
★★★★

IV. Finale: Presto

Virtuosic, ambitious in the tempo, but excellent in the coordination: light, agile, a true fun performance! Despite the fast pace, the articulation was so clear as to beat the reverberation—congrats!

As for the joke: I did not note much response from the audience. Do musicians have to exaggerate for people to realize a musical joke today? At the time of the composition, the ending must have felt hilarious! However, I don’t want to blame the restrained reaction from the audience on the musicians. I should note, though, that the precision in the final Presto bars was remarkable: maintaining coordination in the short interjections, separated by “endless” general rests is a true challenge: congrats!
★★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★★

Beethoven: String Quartet No.11 in F minor, op.95, “Serioso”

As in the preceding, similar concert reviews, I’m referring back to my earlier article with a detailed comparison of various recordings of the String Quartet No.11 in F minor, op.95, “Serioso”, a work from 1810 by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827). In this note, I’m merely giving a list of the movements and their time signatures:

  1. Allegro con brio, 4/4 (M.M. 1/2 = 92)
  2. Allegretto ma non troppo, 2/4 (M.M. ♩= 66) –
  3. Allegro assai vivace ma serioso, 3/4 (M.M. 3/4 = 69) – Più allegro (M.M. 3/4 = 80)
  4. Larghetto espressivo, 2/4 (M.M. ♪ = 56) – Allegretto agitato, 6/8 (M.M. 3/8 = 92) – Allegro, 2/2 (M.M. 1/1 = 92)

You can also read about a concert performance on 2017-04-23 (by a different ensemble), featuring Beethoven’s op.95.

Metronome Numbers

Let me insert a short note on the above metronome (M.M. = Mälzels Metronom) numbers. One should interpret these with a grain of salt. There are some mysteries (and numerous theories) around Beethoven’s metronome numbers. Several people have made attempts to explain why even for today’s fast world, Beethoven’s tempo indications are generally rather high. The numbers above are perfect examples for this. Note that none of the ensembles which I reviewed in my CD comparison reaches these tempo indications.

One (in my opinion extreme) proposal on the Web (Winters, n.d.) is that on metronomes only every second “toc” is to be read. I personally don’t agree with this and won’t comment any further. A (in my opinion) more reasonable explanation is that Beethoven may have erroneously read the number below the weight in the swinging arm, rather than above (Martin-Castro & Ucar, 2020). There is at least one example where the composer mentioned two numbers, like “M.M.=XX or YY?”, with XX and YY corresponding to metronome inscriptions above and below the weight at a certain position.

The Performance

A Note on the Physical Arrangement

I mentioned above that this was not my first encounter with a string quartet performing standing. The Belenus Quartet confirmed my favorable opinion about this type of setting. However, the arrangement in this recital differed from that of the two ensembles mentioned above. Both these quartets had the cellist in the rear position (right-hand side). The Gringolts Quartet performs with the two violins in the front. Conversely, in the one concert that I attended, the Artemis Quartet had the viola on the right, both violins on the left.

The ensemble had the cellist (Jonas Vischi) perform at the rightmost position — definitely a good choice. It corresponds to the “romantic* orchestra arrangement with the violins on the left, followed by viola and cello.

Musically and acoustically, the arrangement that the Belenus Quartet selected worked just fine. Especially the viola (Esther Fritzsche) profited from playing in a rear position. The two violins, performing in close proximity is of course ideal. The cello enjoyed excellent acoustic conditions in this church anyway. So, no problem? No, except that relative to the three women, Jonas Vischi appeared visually marginalized. My right-hand side balcony seat of course “amplified” that visual “imbalance”. Still, from the rear of the nave, the cellist may have been hard to see. Why didn’t the cellist perform on an extra pedestal, like the cellist in the aforementioned quartets?

I. Allegro con brio

An ambitious tempo—too challenging in this acoustic environment (and still not even near Beethoven’s metronome number, see above!). The reverberation very much defeated the clarity of the countless staccato passages. It’s not that the artists didn’t master their selected pace, but they were working against the reverberation. In a studio environment, it might be possible to maintain clarity at such a pace—but not in such church acoustics.

One should note that Beethoven’s score is very demanding: already the coordination in the very first bar is highly tricky. Here, that bar sounded very “fluffy”. However, that was just a “start-up issue”, and the main noticeable mishap of this kind. Still, in this acoustics, and in order to maintain clarity in the staccato, a slower tempo (i.e., more adapted) would clearly have been preferable.

Apart from the adversities with the reverberation (and the very first bar) I noted no technical issues—technically, the ensemble mastered the movement well. I even felt that the performance was enthralling. The intonation was again excellent, the purity of octave parallels (particularly between the two violins) outstanding.
★★★½

II. Allegretto ma non troppo

A beautiful performance, in a beautiful, but musically demanding movement, especially in the intonation! Each of the voices has segments where it is highly exposed, and the smallest intonation error in the chromatic passages can be noted. The ensemble not only mastered this very well, they also maintained tension and flow. And the dynamic balance was outstanding, exposing the beautiful sonorities, particularly of the viola and the cello. It was here in particular where I found that the instruments were fitting ideally in terms of sonority / color, sound characteristics, etc.
★★★

III. Allegro assai vivace ma serioso – Più allegro

Vehement, expressive (not polished to perfection, luckily), high-spirited and technically superb. My only / main quibble is again related to the acoustics. The demanding pace was at a point where the semiquavers in punctuations were sometimes in danger of being “swallowed”. Also, after the double bar, the quaver figures in the first violin (especially on the g and d’ strings) were often drowning in the legato lines of the other instruments. Sure, these chordic lines are the theme of the middle part. However, to me, the beauty of this movement is in the undulating lines of the first violin. Hence, that deserves a little more presence.
★★★½

IV. Larghetto espressivo – Allegretto agitato – Allegro

Remarkable intonation purity in the Larghetto espressivo introduction. Looking for a “hair in the soup”? The demisemiquavers from the punctuations in the initial upbeats in the first violin probably deserve more presence. After all, the composer writes a crescendo fork already over the punctuated semiquavers.

Not surprisingly, the Allegretto agitato was again on the fast side, occasionally lacking clarity in this acoustic environment. Technically, however, the Belenus Quartet mastered this movement exceptionally well. Also here, the ensemble (luckily!) was not aiming for polished perfection. Often, the fast semiquaver figures in the middle voices were at the limit where they started sounding noisy. However, one might argue that this was in the composer’s intent. And I actually enjoyed how some of the “naked”, accented peak notes on the violin stood out.

Finally, the Allegro coda! Who could blame the musicians for ignoring the reverberation and indulging in the fun of this brilliant, virtuosic closure? It rushed by like a hurricane—enthralling and impressive!
★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★½

Encore — Composer: Work

What would the artists select as an encore? Does the audience have (the right to have) expectations on the choice of encore? To me, the encore is a simple gesture of recognition towards the audience—for its presence, and for the applause. As such, I think there is no need to exhibit virtuosity or brilliance, but a simple piece that fits the atmosphere, the spirit of the moment should serve the purpose. Clearly, any of Beethoven’s movements would have been “over the top”.

The artists selected the “folksy fun part” of Haydn’s op.33/2—second movement, Scherzo: Allegro, this time without the repeats in the da capo part. Definitely a good choice in the character of the piece, and likely the movement where the musicians had the most fun. However, I could not resist the thought that we already heard the Scherzo part four times, the Trio twice. And with the encore, this resulted in a total of seven and four times, respectively. Bean counting? Maybe—and sorry! But still: weren’t there any (simple / easy) alternatives among the almost 300 movements in Haydn’s string quartet oeuvre?


Conclusions

A fascinating performance and interpretation of Haydn’s “Joke” Quartet—excellent both technically, as well as musically. I was particularly pleased with the ensemble’s historically informed approach: minimal, if any vibrato, natural, light articulation.

Beethoven’s “Serioso” Quartet is more demanding in all aspects—however, the Belenus Quartet didn’t appear to face substantial challenges (other than occasionally the reverberation). I was particularly pleased with the sonority, the outstanding coordination, the excellent intonation (despite minimal or no vibrato!), the careful, diligent dynamics. And the persistency with which the musicians maintained tension and the musical flow.


Literature

Winters, W. (n.d.). AuthenticSound – YouTube. www.youtube.com. Retrieved September 9, 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC8vR6VP-3o_SpdnEBrpYGiQ

Martin-Castro, A., & Ucar, I. (2020). Conductors’ tempo choices shed light over Beethoven’s metronome. PLOS ONE, 15(12), e0243616. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0243616


Author: Rolf Kyburz

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