Carmina Quartet
Haydn / Schubert

Kirche St.Peter, Zurich, 2019-10-20

4-star rating

2019-10-25 — Original posting



Outline


Introduction

A mere month after the last concert with the Merel Quartet on 2019-09-22 at Zurich’s St.Peter Church, the concert agency Hochuli Konzert AG offered yet another “local” String Quartet recital in the same venue, the same series—this time the Carmina Quartet:


Artists

The name Carmina Quartet is prominent among Zurich’s rich scene in string quartets (quartets which are either officially located in Zurich, or which otherwise feature artists working in the area). The Carmina Quartet is looking back to a history that started with the foundation in 1984. At the core of the ensemble were the two founding members Matthias Enderle (first violin) and his spouse, Wendy Champney (viola). Additional, long-standing members included Susanne Frank (second violin) and the cellist Stephan Goerner.

Early successes at competitions led to a splendid international career—which was going through a harsh disruption when Stephan Goerner suffered a brain stroke in 2016, which precluded further performances with the ensemble. Moreover, Susanne Frank died in September 2017.

A New Start

Matthias Enderle and his wife did not want the history of the ensemble to end, and so, they were looking for new members to form a renewed quartet. One replacement was an easy and logical choice: their daughter Chiara Enderle (now Chiara Samatanga) not only is an excellent cellist but she grew up with the quartet as part of the family, so she was already familiar with the ensemble’s style, repertoire, etc.

In addition, the Polish musician Agata Lazarczyk (*1992) joined the ensemble at the second violin. With this, the ensemble now consists of

  • Matthias Enderle, violin (*1957)
  • Agata Lazarczyk, violin (*1992)
  • Wendy Champney, viola
  • Chiara Samatanga (Enderle), cello (*1992)

This is the ensemble’s first season in the new / renewed configuration, after a 2+ years pause in which the ensemble re-formed (and re-found) itself.

The concert was my first encounter with the Carmina Quartet (though I have of course been aware of its existence for a while already). I have, however encountered Chiara Smatanga (then still Enderle) in two earlier concerts / recitals: for one, a 30-minute solo pre-concert in Lucerne on 2018-05-31, and even before that, on 2018-04-13, in a chamber music concert that the Orpheum Foundation organized at Zurich’s Tonhalle Maag. On both occasions, her performance was excellent, both as soloist and as chamber musician in an ad-hoc chamber music formation with a young French String Quartet.


Program

The concerts in the String Quartet Series at Kirche St.Peter are scheduled at 5 pm on Sunday afternoons, and they last around 1 hour. This led to a compact program with two compositions only. However, both these are masterpieces in the genre:

Setting, etc.

I was fortunate in several ways: not only did I receive press tickets, but I also (and again!) enjoyed the privilege of attending the concert on the organ balcony. This not only gave me an excellent view onto the performance, but it also allowed me to set up my photo camera, to keep an eye on the score (on my iPad) and to take notes. And all without disrupting other members of the audience. The organ balcony was closed to the public otherwise, as the organ is currently undergoing a major renovation / maintenance.


Concert & Review

Haydn: String Quartet in D major, op.76/5

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809) composed the String Quartet in D major, op.76/5 in 1797 or 1798, as part of a group if six quartets (op.76) that are dedicated to the Hungarian Count Joseph Georg von Erdödy (1754 – 1824). According to Wikipedia, the Quartet op.76 No.5 got the nicknames “Largo” or “Friedhofsquartett” (graveyard quartet). This I find extremely odd! True, the slow movement is a beautiful composition and may indeed serve as music to funeral services. However, the two outer movements are among Haydn’s funniest, wittiest compositions (see the addendum at the bottom for detailed information on that aspect). How does that fit to these nicknames?? The four movements in op.76/5 have the following annotations:

  1. Allegretto
  2. Largo. Cantabile e mesto
  3. Menuetto: Allegro
  4. Finale: Presto

The Performance

General Impressions

The Carmina Quartet performed in the “traditional” (“score”) setup. The two violins on the left, followed by viola and cello. Throughout the concert, it was obvious that Matthias Enderle was leading the ensemble. One could feel that not only from the musical interactions, but also from the physical orientation of the musicians.

Even though they were sitting in a semi-circle, the three women (at least “mentally”) seemed to face the first violin, rather than the center of the semi-circle. And Matthias Enderle typically had his upper body oriented towards the center of the others—his wife Wendy Champney, obviously. It mostly wasn’t obvious where he was actually looking, and whether he was observing the others.

Among the females, it came as no surprise that Chiara Samatanga was most actively seeking eye contact with the other players: that fits her open nature, and also was how she interacted in the concert on 2018-04-13. This way, she also indirectly communicated with the audience: a pleasure to watch and observe!

I. Allegretto

The first listening impressions concern the combination of performance / articulation style and acoustics. In the articulation, the performance felt very subtle, gentle, flowing, and also the dynamics were subtly following gentle waves, avoiding “rough edges”—certainly in the 40-bars introduction. The acoustics of the venue highlighted the mellow playing and articulation: throughout the concert, it tended to fill or bridge general rests. In slow movements, this wasn’t a disadvantage. It rather amplified the atmospheric character of the performance.

Sound and volume of the four instruments seemed to match very well: throughout the concert, the dynamic balance was excellent. In particular, it was astounding to observe the equivalence of the cello and viola sound: several times in the concert, I was looking up from my notes, expecting to see the cello playing. It turned out to be Wendy Champney’s viola, an instrument with an amazingly warm and full sound (matching its apparently rather big body). Chiara Samatanga’s cello, on the other hand, did not dominate, but provided a solid foundation with its warm and clear timbre.

If I were to be very critical, I would say that compared to the others, Matthias Enderle’s violin at times sounded a tad thin. That said: Haydn’s first violin part is challenging, especially where occasionally it moves into extreme heights. Keeping those passages clean in a live performance is tricky, if not hardly possible: the occasional mishap in these segments is to be expected in concert.
★★★★

Vibrato

I can’t resist talking about vibrato. I did not expect a “historic” performance. After all, instruments / strings and bows were modern style. That’s a question of neck length and steepness, string tension, the length of the finger board, steel E-strings on the violins, and bow style (Tourte bows throughout). Consequently, vibrato was in use almost throughout. In general, I found it to be harmonious, still natural, not excessive as with some ensembles in the 20th century.

It was mostly on the first violin (and especially in slow movements), where I sometimes found the vibrato to reach a level at which it was at least close to turning into a “feature”. I’m among those who had their ears “sharpened” for the purity of sound and harmonies, through historically informed performances (HIP). With this I’m usually objecting when vibrato affects the purity of intervals and harmonies. And just as much when it distracts me from the melody, the musical textures. And that’s when vibrato to me turns into an undesirable “feature” of its own.

I don’t mean to imply that vibrato is “forbidden”, but at least for the baroque / classical and early romantic periods, it should be used consciously (and ideally selectively, to highlight specific notes or parts of a phrase or melody).

II. Largo. Cantabile e mesto

What a calm and resting performance! Here, the violins now sounded mellow, and the viola could play out the quality of its sound, its excellent volume and projection. The articulation was even more mellow and flowing, and the warmth of the tone was particularly apparent in the subtlety of p, pp, and sotto voce passages. And this mysterious segment in bars 40ff—capturing, touching! Also here, the balance was truly excellent, the cello again provided a solid foundation, without ever sounding intrusive. My only minor quibble was again with Matthias Enderle’s vibrato; all the more, it was a pleasure to listen to the final bars—without any vibrato at all!
★★★★½

III. Menuetto: Allegro

The Menuetto starts with exactly the same motif as the preceding Largo. Except that it’s in D major, not F♯ major. Here, Matthias Enderle selected a true Allegro pace, flowing, not pushed, and without all harshness in articulation. The fz in bar 6 wasn’t exaggerated: playful, not joking, also in the hemiolic passage that follows after the double barline.

To a slight degree, the acoustics affected the clarity in the Trio: slightly lighter articulation might have been in order here?
★★★★

IV. Finale: Presto

One of Haydn’s funniest, most joking movements (see the addendum below)! Here, the musicians went up to (and slightly beyond) the limit in their fast pace. True, it’s Presto. However, at this tempo, many of the semiquaver motifs and passages started to sound superficial, unclear in the detail. Yes, the performance was alert (and also clear, down to quaver notes) and virtuosic. However, the reverberation of course did not help the clarity. Quite obviously, passion, temperament and drive were more central here than utter clarity and purity / cleanliness in articulation and sound. Even though at the limit, Haydn’s music and the performance of course were enthralling, even breathtaking!
★★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★★


Schubert: String Quartet No.14 in D minor, D.810, “Death and the Maiden”

The second work, the String Quartet No.14 in D minor, D.810, “Death and the Maiden” by Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) doesn’t require further introduction. I have written about two preceding concert performances of this composition: one from a concert in Stein am Rhein, on 2017-10-01 (Hagen Quartett), and a second one from a concert in the Teatrostudio in the LAC in Lugano, on 2019-03-15 (Artemis Quartet). The movements here are as follows:

  1. Allegro (4/4)
  2. Andante con moto (2/2)
  3. Scherzo: Allegro molto (3/4)
  4. Presto (6/8)

The Performance

I. Allegro (4/4)

Violent and very expressive, these two “shouted” initial exclamations! The subsequent pp bars almost sounded like overreacting to the opening violence—which of course gradually (and periodically) returns throughout the movement. Especially in expressive, dramatic passages, Matthias Enderle intensified his vibrato. The first violin often seemed to dominate. However, that’s largely due to Schubert’s composition, his melodic thinking. Matthias Enderle was leading, kept injecting impulses into the performance, and the other three players picked these up, maybe even intensified the momentum, the drive, the pull forward in the dramatic segments. The articulation with “bite” (up to occasional rough passages), the strong agogics highlighted the drama, the expression in this movement.

Vibrato, Again…

I particularly liked the perfect intonation in the octave parallels between the first violin and the viola. On the other hand, there were occasional intonation impurities in expressive or violent, high passages in the first violin. It’s hard to tell how much vibrato has contributed to this. With the dominance of the top voice, it was again there, where I found the vibrato, the occasional, prominent portamento / glissando close to being “too much”. On the other hand, the vibrato in the upper voices really highlighted the remarkable, vibrato-less, long notes in the cello (in the second part of the movement), or the same, “flat” playing in the last bars, which seemed to part in resignation and despair.

The musicians in the Carmina Quartet did not spare themselves from the technical challenges in this piece: the tempo was certainly not slow or sluggish. Rather, it reached a point where (especially with the Mischklang produced by the reverberation in this venue) the articulation occasionally started to lose clarity. Some of the punctuations appeared slightly “softened”. Still, it was a highly (and adequately) dramatic performance that kept the listener at the edge of the chair! Sadly, the repeat of the exposition was omitted. Presumably due to strict limitations in the duration of the concert.
★★★★

II. Andante con moto (2/2)

The Lied theme: with repeats, of course (as throughout the movement), solemn, sotto voce, almost legato (a very mellow, gentle portato). In line with the simplicity of the Lied, the vibrato appeared far less prominent here, more discreet. Where it showed up, it sounded adequate, “vocal”. With the subtlety in the pp of the theme, the harsh moments in the first movement were forgotten instantly. Towards the end of the first variation, the subtlety of the performance was even more apparent. At the same time, te Carmina Quartet kept the tension, the intensity, the presence up to the end.

In the second variation, where the melody moves into the cello, Chiara Samatange managed to make her instrument sound with the clarity, the lyricism, the human warmth of a viola, and her colleagues supported this with extra refinement and softness in the accompaniment: beautiful, almost miraculous!

The third variation opens with intense ff / fz motifs, later adds violent arpeggios in the outer voices. One minor quibble: in the score, these (to me) “look” more violent, if not coarse. Here, the tempo was perhaps as little fast for playing out these strong markings?

In variation 4, the first violin is challenged again with octave intervals in the highest positions. Not all of these were quite clean. However, that part is not only really difficult, but also highly exposed. After another, highly expressive and dramatic segment, the movement retracts into the finest pp and ppp. This again proved one of the real strengths of the Carmina Quartet: their subtlety in the softest passages: miraculous! The only hiccup here: the crescendo in the penultimate bar (and the associated portamento in the first violin) turned out too strong (almost gross), too prominent.
★★★★½

III. Scherzo: Allegro molto (3/4)

A Scherzo in the extreme! Highly dramatic, violent even—and a little too fast. In the church acoustics, the clarity was suffering, short notes in punctuated motifs started to disappear. The Carmina Quartet seemed to rank expression higher than ultimate transparency and clarity in articulation.

The Trio offered a chance to the lower instruments and the second violin to expose the marvels of their sound in beautiful cantilenas.
★★★★

IV. Presto (6/8)

Not surprisingly, the musicians performed a true Presto—if not more than that. They again sacrificed some clarity in the punctuations (and occasionally also intonation) in favor of extreme expression and passion. Still, the performance was highly dramatic and coherent. And indeed, some of the violent eruptions in this movement sounded like a lightning storm (not to mention the the whirlwind of the final Prestissimo)! No doubt: the Carmina Quartet is technically at a very, very high level. The performance kept the electrifying tension, the drive, the persistent pull forward (excepting of course the occasional ritardanto, the fermatas).

Even though I personally would prefer a slightly different balance between drama / expression and clarity, I still call this an excellent, dramatic performance—impressive!
★★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★★


Encore — Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904): String Quartet No.12 in F major, op.96, B.179, “American” — II. Lento

For the (first) encore, the Carmina Quartet switched gears from Schubert’s dramatic ending to one of the most peaceful, serene and atmospheric pieces for string quartet: the slow second movement (Lento) from the String Quartet No.12 in F major, op.96, B.179, “American” by Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904). That’s again well-known and popular music, and an excellent complement to the preceding composition.

Rather than giving a description of the composition, let me just refer to reports from earlier performances of this piece:

The Performance

A beautiful performance, with emphatically swaying agogics and dynamics. And here, the equally swaying vibrato was perfectly adequate for the Slavonic character of this music. Some melodies / motifs may be “inherited” from Dvořák’s stay in the US, but the composer could not deny or hide his Czech / Bohemian heritage.

I particularly enjoyed the passages where the viola takes the role of the bass instrument, and the cello joins the singing of the second violin as a middle voice! And these duets between the two violins, or those between viola and cello: perfectly synchronized, perfect in intonation. Each of the pairs seemed to merge into a single voice, a single soul. I can’t remember a performance of this movement leaving such a strong and lasting impression on me: the true highlight of the evening!

It could well be that in the context of the entire op.96 I might have been slightly more critical of this performance. here, however, it was the right piece in the right moment and context. A perfect closure after Schubert’s drama and emotions!
★★★★★


Encore 2 — Helena Winkelmann (*1974): “Haydn on the Rocks”

Judging from the applause, the “renewal / revival” of the Carmina Quartet has been a full success. The frenetic applause even led to a second encore, announced by Chiara Samatanga (in Swiss German, of course): the short piece “Haydn on the Rocks” by the composer and violinist Helena Winkelmann (*1974). Helena Winkelmann is the daughter of a Dutch/Italian flutist and a Swiss harpsichord player. “Haydn on the Rocks” might as well have the title “Haydn rocks!”. It’s a short, jazzy, fun piece, rhythmically wild, dense and complex. And it is equally wild in its multiple, simultaneous tonalities, resulting in dissonant, but fun clashes. Both the Carmina Quartet and its audience obviously enjoyed this “last dance”!

Conclusions

I think that the above review speaks for itself. I have seen quartets (almost) fall apart after incisive changes such as those which this ensemble had to go through. From this concert, it looks as if Matthias Enderle and Wendy Champney were able to avert a major downturn—thanks to the fortunate possibility to “activate” their daughter, Chiara Samatanga. And they found an excellent successor for Susanne Frank at the second violin, Agata Lazarczyk. After a pause of less than three years, the ensemble is performing at an astounding level.

Of course, it is now a two-generations quartet, with Matthias Enderle and Wendy Champney presumably providing strong guidance in maintaining level / quality, as well as (presumably) style / philosophy in the ensemble’s performances. Yet, one can expect the influence of the young generation to grow, maybe eventually (gradually) take over control from the quartet’s founders. I will be interesting to see this quartet evolve over the coming years.


Addendum

I could not resist adding the video below to this posting. It contains a 75 minute lecture by Bruce Adolphe (*1955), the composer of the piano concerto that premiered in the Philharmonic Concert at Zurich Opera on 2016-07-10. Bruce Adolphe is also a brilliant entertainer and an excellent lecturer. This lecture was one of many that he holds in the series “Inside Chamber Music” at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York, NY. Here, he talks about Haydn’s String Quartet op.76/5, and he explains in detail what is so funny about this composition, and what the composer did to make the music so full of jokes & comedy. In this lecture, he is supported by the Amphion String Quartet a young ensemble consisting of Katie Hyun & David Southorn, violins, Wei-Yang Andy Lin, viola, and Mihai Marica, cello.

In Bruce Adolphe’s lecture, the Amphion String Quartet performs excerpts from Haydn’s quartet, including the entire first and last movements (without the repeats). I do, however, not claim that this is a reference performance by any means, and I do not intend to compare their excerpts with the concert performance by the Carmina Quartett. Yes, the Amphion String Quartet is technically excellent, but they are young, and they also (still?) have their idiosyncrasies (which I leave up to you to find out about). Not everything is perfect in their performance. The two interpretations (Amphion in the lecture, Carmina in last Sunday’s concert) are simply not comparable, be it only because of the acoustics and the completely different environment & atmosphere (the lecture performance is with multiple microphones and studio acoustics).



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