Esmé Quartet
Mendelssohn Bartholdy / Schubert

Lucerne Festival — Debut Series

Lukaskirche, Lucerne, 2019-09-12

3-star rating

2019-09-15 — Original posting

Esmé Quartet (© Sihoo Kim 2018)
Esmé Quartet (© Sihoo Kim 2018)
Luzerner Debut für ein junges Ensemble, und ein Programm mit emotional und technisch hohen Anforderungen — Zusammenfassung

Bloss drei Jahre nach Gründung des Ensembles erhielten die vier Koreanerinnen des Esmé-Quartetts (momentan zwecks weiterführender Ausbildung in Lübeck stationiert) die Chance sich im Rahmen eines Debut-Konzerts am Lucerne Festival zu präsentieren. Die vier Musikerinnen stellten sich dabei großen Herausforderungen:

Mendelssohns letztes Streichquartett entstand unter dem Eindruck des Schocks auf den Tod der Schwester des Komponisten—ein Schock, dem Mendelssohn selbst nur Wochen später zum Opfer fiel. Technisch, in Koordination und Virtuosität, in der Kohärenz von Interpretation und Klang befindet sich das Ensemble auf einem sehr beeindruckenden Stand. Die Musikerinnen schonten sich nicht, wählten anspruchsvolle Tempi, warfen sich mit Verve in die aufgewühlte Stimmung von Mendelssohns Komposition. Es störten lediglich die gelegentlich zu weiche Artikulation mit einer gewissen Tendenz zu bauchigen Noten und Nachdrücken. Darunter litt ab und zu die Klarheit in Artikulation und Phrasierung.

Die Anforderungen in Schuberts letztes Quartett ergeben sich nicht so sehr aus existenziellen Nöten des Komponisten, als vielmehr aus dem Willen des Komponisten, Grenzen zu sprengen auf dem Weg zu großen und größten Formen. Die vier Musikerinnen steigerten diese Anforderungen noch durch rasche, flüssige Tempi—bis an die Grenze, an welcher motivische Klarheit und saubere Intonation gelegentlich zu leiden begannen. Dennoch: zweifelsohne ein Ensemble mit hohem, virtuos-technischem Können und beeindruckender klanglicher Kohärenz und Ausgewogenheit. Bei der Kürze ihres bisherigen Werdegangs demonstrierten die Musikerinnen, dass sie das Potenzial haben, in höchste Kammermusik-Sphären aufzusteigen.

Table of Contents


This was the last of the Debut Series recitals in this year’s Lucerne Festival. These recitals take place at the Lukaskirche, see also my report about the preceding Debut series recital two days earlier. As mentioned there, both Debut Series concerts this week were sold out.

The Artists

The Esmé Quartet emerged in 2016 at the Hochschule für Musik und Tanz in Cologne, Germany, see also Wikipedia. The ensemble consists of four Korean musicians, all of which started their studies in their home country, then moved to Germany, where they completed their music education as soloists. They now devote their career to quartet playing:

  • Wonhee Bae, violin
  • Yuna Ha, violin
  • Jiwon Kim, viola
  • Ye-eun Heo, cello

The name “Esmé” refers to the ancient French expression for “loved”, “esteemed”—now aimé in the modern language. Already in the year following its formation, the Esmé Quartet had a first success at a chamber music competition in Trondheim, Norway. In spring 2018, the musicians won the first prize and four special prizes at the International String Quartet competition at Wigmore Hall, and in the same year, they received the HSBC award at the Académie du Festival d’Aix. With these prizes, they successfully launched an international career, with appearances at festivals and in concert halls in Germany, Italy, Portugal, Great Britain, and South Korea. The quartet now continues to study at the Musikhochschule Lübeck, with Heime Müller (*1970), a long-standing, former member of the Artemis Quartet.


Setting, etc.

Lucerne, Lukaskirche, 2019-09-12 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Lucerne, Lukaskirche, 2019-09-12 (© Rolf Kyburz)

I took a slow start in returning to concert reviewing after a summer break—and so I was late in booking seats for the debut series. Four days prior to the event, all good seats in the nave were booked, and for this concert, there were even just seats in the two rear-most rows on the balcony. As I arrived early / in time, I managed to grab a seat in the center of the last row.

Acoustically, that seat was about as good as anywhere on the balcony, or in the rear of the nave—I had no problems hearing the details even in the finest ppp. However, I just managed to see heads and arms, and the high instruments (violins, viola)—and even that sometimes only through some bending in the seat. So, I focused on what I heard (reading the score and taking notes, of course). For once, I did not try following the interaction within the ensemble (after all, what counts in the end, is the outcome, i.e., what arrives at the ear…).

Mendelssohn: String Quartet No.6 in F minor, op.80

In reaction to the sudden death of his beloved sister Fanny Hensel (1805 – 1847), Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847) wrote his String Quartet No.6 in F minor, op.80. It’s not only the composer’s last string quartet, but his last composition altogether—it reflects the devastation that Fanny’s death caused to the composer’s mind. Only weeks after the completion of his op.80, Mendelssohn himself suffered a brain stroke (which also was the cause of his sister’s death, as well as his father’s and his grandfather’s). A week after that, Mendelssohn followed his sister into death. The Quartet No.6 in F minor has four movements:

  1. Allegro vivace assai
  2. Allegro assai
  3. Adagio
  4. Finale: Allegro molto

The Performance

Given the partially obstructed view from my seating position, I won’t comment on the interaction between the musicians during the performance. Just that much: the Esmé Quartet performed in a relatively narrow semicircle, which ensured close contact—if not through eye contact, then through peripheral vision. The close arrangement was possible thanks to the use of tablet computers in lieu of sheet music. The cellist, Ye-eun Heo, sat at the right end, allowing for the viola (played by Jiwon Kim) to project well into the audience.

I. Allegro vivace assai

The Esmé Quartet started energetically, lively, and with verve into the introduction: a fast pace, a whirlwind of agitated semiquavers. The sudden p after the outburst in bar 23 seemed calmer—the underlying tension (if not suspense) did not decrease, though. The musicians demonstrated excellent ensemble playing, with very good coordination and mutual accord in articulation and phrasing. I liked the handling of vibrato, which remained largely inconspicuous. Sometimes, very long notes were left without vibrato, the vibrating only gradually setting in.

The tempo was fast, maybe at the limit for the church acoustics: occasionally, the articulation lacked clarity. However, that could also have been a consequence of the ensemble’s relatively soft articulation in quavers and especially longer notes. In the latter, I noted a tendency towards belly notes, occasionally associated with some Nachdrücken.

II. Allegro assai

Again, a fast pace. The ensemble observed both repeats: thanks! I noted the harmonious sound, bright in high positions on the violins, but devoid of excess pungency. Unfortunately (and maybe amplified by the acoustics), the tendency towards belly notes also affected the clarity in articulation. The acuteness of the many sf on half and 3/4 notes suffered from the soft articulation. A more percussive approach would have been better.

III. Adagio

The Esmé Quartet was careful in the dynamics. Sadly, the tendency towards Nachdrücken and belly notes (down to semiquavers!) was even more evident here. This not only made motifs appear somewhat cloudy, but also the clarity in rhythm and phrasing was suffering. One example: in the second half of the movement, where the music modulates back to A♭ major, the soft articulation in the bass obscured the rhythmic shift in the semiquavers in the other voices.

IV. Finale: Allegro molto

A virtuosic movement, full of turmoil that resembled that of the opening movement. The violence (and deliberate harshness) in the ff outbursts was even much stronger than anything we heard in the first movement. The best movement in this performance. My only (minor) quibble: in some of the highly energetic outbursts, some superficialities in fast passages, especially with the first violin, crept in. However, this movement, actually the entire work, is about strong emotions, not about absolute purity and perfection.

Overall Rating: ★★★

Schubert: String Quartet No.15 in G major, D.887

Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) wrote his String Quartet No.15 in G major, D.887 (op.161) in 1826, two years before he died. This is his last contribution to the genre. Only in 1851, the string quartet in G major was finally published. Hereby, it received the opus number 161. The quartet features four movements:

  1. Allegro molto moderato, 3/4
  2. Andante un poco moto, 4/4
  3. Scherzo: Allegro vivace, 3/4 — Trio: Allegretto, 3/4
  4. Allegro assai, 6/8

This was not my first live encounter with this work. The last concert performance that I wrote about was from a concert in Berne, about 18 months ago. In addition, I have compared three CD recordings of this composition in detail, so I won’t add more explanations here.

The Performance

I. Allegro molto moderato, 3/4

The strong ff chord outbursts appeared with lots of emphasis and verve. This contrasted with the relatively fluent tempo otherwise. This made me think of the question whether the tempo annotation means Allegro molto, moderato—or rather Allegro, molto moderato. The question is somewhat moot, though, as the execution of the demisemiquaver tremolo imposes a limit in how fast one can play this. The ensemble probably went to the limit in the tempo.

With the exception of the ff and ffz explosions, the musicians rather aimed forward than to develop drama and tension in the pp segments. This gave the latter segments a ghastly, light note. Overall, this probably is Schubert’s most challenging quartet movement. One could sense this from occasional, slight intonation issues, most notably in the highly exposed first violin voice. The fact that the repeat of the exposition was omitted may well have been due to time constraints: the movement would be over 20 minutes with the repeat—and so, the Esmé Quartet is not alone in opting for the “shorter version”.

Not all tempo transitions felt quite as harmonious as I would have wished, the tempo concept wasn’t always entirely compelling. The climax in the development part felt like a veritable lightning storm—yet, the trembling pp segments probably deserved more underlying menace & “underground drama”. But technically, the dynamic differentiation, the control in the pp and ppp and sotto voce segments were excellent. Occasionally, as already in the Mendelssohn quartet, I noted a tendency towards belly notes / “cloudy” articulation—e.g., in the cello solo with pizzicato accompaniment in the exposition.

II. Andante un poco moto, 4/4

Here, the repeat signs were observed. The ensemble’s pace probably was at the upper limit—at least, there was a certain, latent unrest. This lack of calm may be intended, though—the ensemble’s view of un poco moto? The movement suffered from some lack of rhythmic clarity and poignancy, with (again) a certain tendency towards belly notes, soft tonal transitions (occasional portamento), and occasionally “washed out” punctuations and some of the demisemiquaver figures. The fluent pace may have contributed to this.

Along with the fluent tempo, the mellow articulation also reduced the effect of rests, which lacked the scare of suddenly being confronted with the look into an abyss (so common in many of Schubert’s late compositions!). The quartet’s dynamic control, particularly in the pp and ppp range, was excellent, the whispered ppp figures (primarily in the violins) stunning. Still, especially the soft parts could / should carry more tension, if not suspense.

III. Scherzo: Allegro vivace, 3/4 — Trio: Allegretto, 3/4

In the Scherzo part (thanks for observing the repeats!), the performance was highly agile, virtuosic, clear. My only quibble is that in the violent outbreaks, the intonation was occasionally suffering—slight signs of fatigue, possibly from the burden of an exceedingly straining program?

In the Trio part the tendency towards belly notes, soft articulation and an occasional, slight excess of vibrato affected the clarity, the simplicity of the music (isn’t this music with a Lied character?).

IV. Allegro assai, 6/8

In the last movement—very emote, energetic, wild—the ensemble again went for a fast pace. The coordination never fell apart—but still, the rhythmic clarity and transparency in rapid figures started to suffer. No doubt: highly virtuosic playing—but perhaps aiming too high? I think that the prime feature in this movement is not in virtuosity / acrobatic show, but in the strength, the eruption of emotions, possibly despair. Also, I didn’t quite understand why in the pp segment after the initial repeats, the ensemble switched to an even faster pace. Certainly, the very fast pace started to increase the tendency towards superficialities in the intonation.

Despite the above reservations & criticism: the ensemble’s playing was coherent, their abilities and virtuosic prowess astounding, the sound excellent in quality and balance. Even when the performance wasn’t always totally compelling, the playing very coherent. And with a history of only three years, the musicians have the potential to grow into the highest chamber music league!

Overall Rating: ★★★

Encore — Schumann: Kinderszenen, op.15 — 7. Träumerei

As encore, the artists announced a piece by Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856), which turned out to be the No.7, Träumerei from Kinderszenen (“Scenes from Childhood”), op.15. The transcription for string quartet may have been that by Benjamin Godard (1849 – 1895).

I usually like to go home from a performance with the strong memory, the impressions of the culminating piece in a concert. From that point-of-view, Schumann’s Träumerei was too much of a contrast, certainly would not have been my choice for an encore. Besides, in my personal opinion, the transcription for strings (especially with the vibrato and the very soft articulation) adds an excess of romanticism, destroys the naïvety, the natural simplicity of the original piano piece.


I think that the key challenges in this concert were not technical: in terms of technique, the Esmé Quartet already fulfills very high standards. However, the musicians set themselves a very, very high goal with the two works that they performed in this concert—again, not technically, but in the emotional aspects in these works, both of which are extreme in their expressive requirements. Mendelssohn’s last quartet is the result of an extreme emotional situation that we don’t wish anyone to go through, and Schubert was aiming at extremes in terms of expression and length: he seemed to anticipate the dimensions of the “Great” C major Symphony, D.944. Both works are a challenge not only for a young ensemble such as the Esmé Quartet, but indeed for any string quartet ensemble!

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