Beethoven / Shostakovich
Lugano, LAC, 2017-04-22
2017-04-28 — Original posting
- Abel Tomàs, violin, born 1980 in Barcelona, founding member
- Vera Martínez Mehner, violin, born 1979 in Madrid, founding member
- Jonathan Brown, viola, born 1974 in Chicago. Jonathan joined the ensemble in 2002
- Arnau Tomàs, cello, brother of Abel Tomàs; born in Barcelona. He is the founder of the quartet.
The ensemble’s international career launched when they won the first prize at the 2000 London International String Quartet Competition, and thereafter at the 2002 International Brahms Competition in Hamburg. Currently, the quartet, which now portrays it self as the premier Spanish string quartet, is in residence at the Barcelona conservatory. According to the Wikipedia article on the Cuarteto Casals, Abel Tomàs and Vera Martínez Mehner often swap positions during concerts.
Venue and Concert Setting
In the weekend series of quartet evenings at the LAC (Lugano Arte e Cultura), this was the second event, on Saturday evening (starting, as most concerts here, at 20:30h). For a description of the venue see my earlier post about the first concert on 2017-04-21, with the Gringolts Quartet. The setting was essentially identical, except that there were now 85 rather than just 72 seats. The seating is adjusted to accommodate the expected audience, and most seats were indeed filled. I took a seat right opposite the center of the quartet, but as far away as possible, i.e., in the last, slightly elevated row. The idea was, to avoid distortions in the acoustic balance (e.g., by sitting closer to specific players).
Podium / Quartet Setup
While the venue looked essentially identical, the setup of the podium showed a different arrangement. The Gringolts Quartet had formed an almost closed circle (almost like a sworn-in, closed society), playing towards, maybe even for each other, entirely devoted to and immersed into the music and its interpretation. Now, the Cuarteto Casals was sitting in an open half-circle, almost entirely facing the audience.
There were also visual differences in the instruments. Here, the instruments already looked different. This is not really relevant, of course, as the important aspect is the sound (though a visually fitting set of instruments would give a better impression, visually). More importantly, for the early Beethoven quartet, the Cuarteto Casals used early classic bows, as opposed to the usual “Tourte” bows used by the Gringolts Quartet. The bows were apparently selected to fit the instruments: the viola (brown-colored, with a yellowish tint), the bow was of dark wood, actually resembled a baroque bow). The other instruments used classic (non-Tourte) bows in the color of their instruments (red).
I also noted differences in the use of the bow. Abel Tomàs appears to have developed a habit of (occasionally) moving back his arm at the bottom end, which looked a bit odd. However, at this level of playing, this should be oF minor importance—what counts is the result.
The Effect of the Bow
The period bows have two effects. For one, they exert less pressure on the string, leading to a lighter, somewhat “airy” tone with less volume. The lower tension of the bow also affects the articulation, especially in spiccato, staccato, etc. Secondly, these bows are shorter, which affects the “bow economy” on longer notes. As some violinists have noted, the shorter period bow reduces the danger of undesirable swelling at the end of a long note. See also my notes on the encore below. Some (certainly this ensemble) regard period bow as essential for historically informed playing. One should note, though, that also Tourte bow can come close to what we now regard “proper historic sound”, if used appropriately. It is indeed equally important how much pressure, how much “hair” / length a player uses, and how he articulates, etc.
The biggest contrast to the previous concert seemed to be in the personalities and their interaction with each other, with the audience.
- In Beethoven’s op.18/1 (the first of the compositions below), Abel Tomàs was playing at the first desk. At times he seemed completely self-immersed, then, he played towards the other musicians, then again, like absent-minded, he turned towards the audience, with unintentionally grimacing facial expressions. Together with the cellist, he seemed to control the ensemble in that part of the concert, and to me, he also dominated the sound of the Cuarteto Casals (though, parts of this may originate from Beethoven’s score / disposition).
- As already on the evening before, the cellist, Arnau Tomàs, was sitting on the rear right-hand side, forming a diagonal with the first violinist. Throughout the evening, he was frequently and vividly, visually interacting with the other musicians (less so with the audience), sometimes casually, almost stealthy, mostly openly, with rich facial expressions / mimics, often smiling or with a friendly smirk, as if he was alluding to or remembering anecdotal events during past rehearsals?
- In contrast, the violist, Jonathan Brown, on the right-hand side, kept a neutral facial expression throughout the concert, seemed fully focused on the score. Only occasionally, when required for the coordination, he visually contacted with his co-musicians for moments.
- Vera Martínez Mehner on the rear left seemed to follow the same pattern. Her facial expression rarely showed any emotions, except for a rare, momentary smile. In this arrangement for Beethoven’s op.18/1, she seemed to operate almost entirely in the shadow of the dominant first violin. This looked like quite a contrast to the quartet’s press photos, most of which place her as a colorful eye-catcher in the center of the ensemble.
On to the music!
Beethoven: String Quartet No.1 in F major, op.18/1
In the context of a comparison of various recordings I have given a detailed description and discussion about the String Quartet No.1 in F major, op.18/1 by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827). Therefore, I’m just listing the movements here, with the respective time signatures:
- Allegro con brio, 3/4
- Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato, 9/8
- Scherzo: Allegro molto, 3/4 — Trio, 3/4
- Allegro, 2/4
For remarks regarding the sound balance see above.
I. Allegro con brio
As mentioned above, this quartet was played with period bows. This caused sound and articulation to be lighter, probably close to what the composer might have expected to hear. Particularly in the first movement, I liked the “natural”, slightly “raw”, but “living” tone, even if the volume was somewhat smaller, less dense than with modern bows.
On the other hand (and in my view, partly contradicting the use of period bows), the artists used vibrato almost throughout, albeit often discreet, not overly nervous or excessively strong or heavy. My personal preference (for historically informed playing) would be, to use vibrato as a kind of ornament, a tool to highlight / bring out specific notes or portions of a phrase. Here, the artists conversely used non-vibrato to highlight specific notes. This works for the highlighting, but still is not my preference.
II. Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato
Here, especially the last part was dramatic and very expressive—very much following the annotation, actually. I did feel the presence of four individual characters, both in the playing, as well as in the sound of the instruments. Relative to the size of the room, the were sitting in a fairly broad arrangement, which probably highlighted differences in sound and character, rather than helping to create a unity. I can’t blame being too close to the ensemble in this context, see above.
III. Scherzo: Allegro molto — Trio
The Scherzo part felt very dramatic, vivid, lively in the sound. In the central, fierce Trio segment, there were spiccati and staccati that almost exhibited more string- and bow noise than tone. I found this to be enriching rather than a nuisance.
Playful, somewhat rough, at times even furious. Not everything was technically perfect in this movement. However, I felt that to these artists, expression was more important than perfection.
Shostakovich: String Quartet No.10 in A♭ major, op.118
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975) composed his String Quartet No.10 in A♭ major, op.118 in 1964. It’s a late work, though five more string quartets were to follow, up till 1974. The movements in this quartet are
- Allegretto furioso
- Adagio –
- Allegretto – Andante
For this work (and throughout the remainder of the concert), the two violin players, Abel Tomàs and Vera Martínez Mehner switched positions. And all of a sudden, the sound balance seemed right! I also note that in the position of lead violinist, Vera Martínez Mehner can indeed show authority, decisiveness, exert vigor, and clearly lead the ensemble. For this 20th century composition, the quartet (adequately) switched to modern bows.
The first movement is played con sordino: very atmospheric music. I particularly liked the eerie sul ponticello segments, especially on the viola (played at / near the bridge, creating strong, almost whistling harmonics in the sound).
II. Allegretto furioso
With the Allegretto furioso, the composer seemed to return / throw the listener back into the spirit of his “war sonatas”, and beyond. I had the impression of “machine music” (I don’t mean this in a deprecating, merely in a descriptive way): theatrical factory noises, an industrial surrounding—”Metropolis“(Fritz Lang, 1927), “Modern Times” (Charlie Chaplin, 1936)—maybe even worse things, such as scenes of fighting, of war?
III. Adagio —
The Adagio balances things again, spreading warm atmosphere and feelings. The movement features wonderful cantilenas in the cello, accompanied by the viola playing the bass (!) line, and in addition by the two violins with tender, gentle sounds. It’s very expressive, especially where viola takes over the melody line, then accompanied by pizzicato. This music also exposes the beautiful sound of Jonathan Brown‘s viola.
IV. Allegretto — Andante
A sometimes almost serene movement initially, then turning vivid, lively, but not boisterous. I really liked the interpretation: technically excellent, played with joy and engagement. The closing Andante returns to the con sordino sonority and the melodic pattern of the opening movement. the music ends in near-silence, to which the audience added with a delayed applause, which definitely is a good sign!
Overall, I found the performance in the Shostakovich quartet much more convincing, compelling than the initial piece by Beethoven. I quite liked it! Russians may find that it was perhaps a bit “too civilized”, or too tamed?
Beethoven: String Quartet No.16 in F major, op.135
In the context of a comparison of various recordings I have given a detailed description and discussion about the String Quartet No.16 in F major, op.135 by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827). Here, I’m therefore just giving a list of the movements, along with the respective time signatures:
- Allegretto, 2/4
- Vivace, 3/4
- Lento assai, cantante e tranquillo, 6/8
- Grave, ma non troppo tratto, 3/2 – Allegro, 2/2
ad IV: “Der schwer gefasste Entschluss” (The difficult decision) — “Muss es sein?” (Must it be?) — “Es muss sein!” (It must be!)
For Beethoven’s last string quartet, the artists switched back to period bows. In the case of Jonathan Brown (viola), this was a third, late-classical model (the one for op.18/1 resembled a late baroque bow).
To me, the opening movement felt convincing, especially through consistent articulation of the theme in the fugato part. I also liked the carefully crafted and balanced dynamics, which helped keeping the polyphonic texture with its variety in themes and motifs transparent, helped making it “intelligible” for the listener. But I somewhat wondered about some extra inégal articulations, such as in bars 80 up to around 110. However, this was not a major irritation, really.
The Cuarteto Casals offered technically excellent quartet playing—often almost like a single instrument, with very light articulation. Vera Martínez Mehner was leading clearly, often vigorously. She did this without dominating the ensemble, sound-wise. She exerted excellent intonation also in highest positions, and she was never dropping the tempo or the tension.
III. Lento assai, cantante e tranquillo
In this movement, the most striking feature to me was the very warm, full, expressive sound of Vera Martínez Mehner‘s violin in the low strings, wonderfully singing, really touching!
Sadly, there was also some irritation by the several instances of smiles, the grins that the cellist sent to his co-players. In a joyful movement, this would / might be OK, but in my opinion definitely not in such a touching movement, in which the composer almost certainly was shedding many tears while writing it down. Here, this stopped me from fully entering the music emotionally. No matter how well he played, it felt as if the cellist wasn’t taking the music seriously. I don’t expect artists to cry with sad music, but this was definitely inappropriate. It reminded me of a situation where in a shop sales personnel openly started whispering about my choice of product while processing the payment. Here, at the very least, this was an unnecessary distraction that stopped me from fully enjoying the music—in an otherwise excellent interpretation.
IV. Grave, ma non troppo tratto – Allegro
The last movement with its “Muss es sein?” question and the enthusiastic “Es muss sein!” response was very good, excellent, technically. As interpretation, it certainly fulfilled my expectations from the preceding movements. It was maybe to be expected that two lead motifs didn’t seem to be derived from the German pronunciation / articulation, the language rhythm of the two phrases. This was a very subtle thing, but I wondered whether this rather fit the Spanish language? Or maybe Català??
Encore — Brahms: String Quartet No.3 in B♭ major, op.67 — II. Andante
The Cuarteto Casals offered an encore: the second movement, Andante, from the String Quartet No.3 in B♭ major, op.67, which Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) composed in 1875. Here, the artists switched back to the modern Tourte bows.
It was a good selection for an encore, an intense piece with resolute interjections, played with careful dynamics. My primary reservation here was about the excessive vibrato, primarily in the violins. And there was a certain tendency for “Nachdrücken” (slight swelling at the end off long notes, see above), particularly where the music is very intense, emotional. I didn’t really like this.
To me, the primary highlight in the (Beethoven) interpretations by the Cuarteto Casals was/is in the light articulation, the appropriate use of period bows. Some of this (again, to me) is defeated by their choice of vibrato. I)n terms of emotional content, the use of agogics, I think that they are much closer to “mainstream” interpretations than the performances by the Gringolts Quartet on the previous day.
However, the latter—to me “stronger”, more characterful—interpretations are also more polarizing. As much as some (such as myself) may like them, others may not like them at all. My (elder) neighbor stated that he much preferred this quartet over the previous one—his comment: “This is a quartet! The others were just friends, playing together—they got me infuriated!”. So music reception is and remains subjective and personal!
For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack.com. I created the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.
The other concert in this string quartet weekend series at the LAC in Lugano were: