Gringolts Quartet
Beethoven / Dutilleux

Lugano, LAC, 2017-04-21

5-star rating


2017-04-27 — Original posting
2018-05-09 — Corrected instrument information, based on input by Ilya Gringolts

Gringolts Quartet (© Tomasz Trzebiatowski)
Gringolts Quartet (© Tomasz Trzebiatowski)

Introduction

The Musicians

In 2008, the Russian violinist Ilya Gringolts founded the Gringolts Quartet. The members of the quartet are

The Gringolts Quartet is based in Zurich, Switzerland.

Venue and Concert Setting

This was the first concert in a weekend series of three top quality String Quartet recitals in the LAC (Lugano Arte e Cultura). It was an unusually intimate event: the concert was not set up in the main concert hall, rather in the Teatrostudio in the remotest corner of the same, newly built complex (which also includes a major museum). Oddly / strangely, one needs top wait for the elevator to be unlocked (half an hour before the concert starts), then reach the fifth floor, then follow a rather long, windowless corridor, after a left turn, walk down another corridor of similar length, then take a staircase to reach the fourth floor and the Teatrostudio in the northwestern corner of the complex.

The Teatrostudio is a small, rectangular, high hall, with facilities (illumination, control room in the upper floor) for theater rehearsals. It looked like being windowless, though the lower part of half of the walls was covered with black curtains (in fact, there are windows in the distant, short side of the room, now covered with the curtains). Along the western, long side, there were four rows of chairs (72 seats overall, the two rows in the rear elevated by one step each). With concert lighting walls and ceiling partly disappear in the dark, the listener’s attention gets focused onto the musicians, creating a “community feeling” together with the musicians: an unusually intimate chamber music event!

General Remarks on the Concert

The artists formed an almost closed circle, with Ilya Gringolts at the left, Anahit Kurtikyan on the right, Silvia Simionescu (viola) in the rear left, and Claudius Herrmann (cello) on the rear right-hand side. Even though the instruments stem from a vast variety of manufacturers and were made over a time of 1.5 centuries, I felt that they formed an excellent ensemble, seemed ideally matched in their characteristics to each other. The ensemble exhibited an excellent balance. Only perhaps the second violin (Anahit Kurtikyan) may have been facing a very slight disadvantage, as she was playing towards the rear wall. However, in this small venue, this was hardly noticeable at all.

In fast movements, the artists preferred a fluent, if not fast pace. Their technique, the coordination, the intonation, and the dynamic balance were essentially flawless  across the entire concert. I was also very pleased to note that the ensemble observed all of Beethoven’s repeat signs.


Beethoven: String Quartet No.6 in B♭ major, op.18/6

The Composition

In the context of a comparison of various recordings of the String Quartet No.6 in B♭ major, op.18/6 by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) I have posted a detailed description and discussion of this composition. I’m therefore just giving a list of the movements here, with the time signatures:

  1. Allegro con brio, 2/2
  2. Adagio ma non troppo, 2/4
  3. Scherzo: Allegro, 3/4 — Trio, 3/4
  4. La Malinconia: Adagio, 2/4 — Allegretto quasi Allegro, 3/8 — Prestissimo

The Performance

Already with the first few bars of this quartet, I was already completely “pulled into” the interpretation of Beethoven’s op.18/6. Nothing in their performance was casual or “unimportant”—the four musicians were so mentally and emotionally engaged, played with a seriousness and a sincerity that isn’t seen very often. Their playing was full of tension and character at all times. Their tone was far away from neutral beauty and perfection—rather a tone with “grip”, clear attack and sound quality/character. They used minimal vibrato and didn’t shy away from using empty strings. Their interpretation was dramatic, both in agogics and dynamics, “awake”, alert even across general rests.

I. Allegro con brio

The ensemble’s seating arrangement yielded an interesting “cross-shape” constellation in this movement: first violin and cello at times have an intense, vivid dialog, an exchange of motifs on one diagonal, while on the other diagonal, the second violin and the viola were jointly doing the accompaniment. One may sometimes hear this music played superficially, lightly, in the style of Rococo music. However, what these artists presented could not be any farther from this description of harmlessness: clearly, in their hands, this proved to be a masterwork of the young Beethoven, who already much have been at the height of his art!

II. Adagio ma non troppo

Here, the quartet avoided all excess sweetness: their performance convincingly proved to me, how even this movement must have sounded revolutionary at the time of its creation. The ensemble’s playing was very atmospheric, but resting in itself, like unified to form a single instrument. I particularly liked the often delayed, slight vibrato, the sotto voce segments entirely devoid of vibrato, or the delicate, very refined, yet very accurate spiccato in the first violin, above the staccato accompaniment.

III. Scherzo: Allegro — Trio

The Scherzo part is a vivid, wild discourse between the instruments, with strong contrasts and tricky sforzato syncopes. The musicians did not hesitate to expose the latter with deliberately rough articulation—furiously fast, but with perfect coordination.

IV. La Malinconia: Adagio — Allegretto quasi Allegro

Some of the Adagio in the last movement—entitled “La Malinconia” (The Melancholy)—seemed to preconceive / anticipate the “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit” (Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity) from the late String Quartet No.15 in A minor, op.132: revolutionary harmonies, full of pain, erupting into outcries, with strong dynamic contrasts, building up tension until it became nearly unbearable.

As expected, the Allegretto quasi Allegro was very fast and virtuosic—but not smooth and polished: rather wild, extremely engaged; not just simply joyful, rather moody, if not desperate. The closing Prestissimo was brilliant, masterful—yet played as if it had been a matter of life and death!


Dutilleux: Ainsi la Nuit“, for string quartet

The Composition

Henri Dutilleux (1916 – 2013) wrote his string quartet “Ainsi la Nuit” (Thus the Night) between 1973 and 1976. The composition was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation, for the Juilliard Quartet. The composition is build on the basis of a single “hexachord” C – G – F – G – C – D; Dutilleux apparently studied the string quartets by Beethoven and Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945), as well as the Six Bagatelles by Anton Webern (1883 – 1945) before starting with this work.

Structure of the Composition

Ainsi la Nuit” is rather demanding—technically, for the musicians, but also for the listener, who might perceive this as “difficult to understand”. The latter may indeed be true if one tries to “understand” its structure. However, this is going to fail almost inevitably, as (certainly to the first-time lay listener) the composition lacks a melodic structure, i.e., recognizable lead motifs, etc., and an obvious harmonic progression, even rhythmic structuring. Even the movement structure is heavily veiled: the first of the seven movements has an extra introduction, and in addition, the first five movements are linked through short “Parenthèses” in which the musicians have plenty of freedom in tempo, etc., and the last four movements are to be played attacca:

  1. (Introduction): libre et souple, 1/4=66 — Nocturne: assez lent
  2. Parenthèse I: très libre —
    Miroir d’espace: violent
  3. Parenthèse II: libre et flexible —
    Litanies: animé
  4. Parenthèse III: lent —
    Litanies II
  5. Parenthèse IV: animé —
    Constellations: vif, souple et libre —
  6. Nocturne II: légèrement détendu —
  7. Temps suspendu: 1/8=96 ca.

The trailing dashes indicate where in this performance pieces / segments were played attacca, i.e., without break.

What I (Don’t) Hear as a Listener

Without a score (or knowing the composition inside out), the first-time listener has no chance of discerning the seven movements in “Ainsi la nuit“. I had done some preparation for the concert, but still, to me, the only bracketing element was the fact that the last piece, “Temps suspendu“, takes up the swelling motifs of the opening “Nocturne” again. There is no underlying, concrete or explicit poetic program to this work. With this, I think that the listener should rather rely on his senses, let the piece work on one’s mind and mood, abandon oneself, indulge in the music—and enjoy.

Henri Dutilleux explores just about any conceivable special techniques—all involving the strings, though. He does not venture into pure noise-making, such as knocking on the instrument body (nor even col legno playing). These techniques include sul ponticello (at the bridge) playing, as well as sul tasto (over the soundboard), flageolet, flautando, glissando, pizzicato, tremolando, “airy bow”, tones in extreme heights, rapid sequences of (also overlapping) motif fragments, and so on.

The Performance

The Gringolts Quartet mastered this music with relentless presence, technically and musically absolutely firm: in rhythm, coordination, as well as in the intonation.

To me, the introductory “Nocturne” evoked the spirits of the night, maybe also nightmares. In the movement “Miroirs d’espace” (Mirrors of Space), dynamic contrasts produce spatial (3D, so to say) plasticity, including reverberation from objects staggered in the depth. “Litanies I” evoked pictures of paintings using broad, coarse paintbrushes, splattered colors, such as in paintings by Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956)—and later there seems to be the sound of a swarm of bees.

As a contrast, the subsequent “Litanies II” seemed to express forlornness, loneliness, the silence of a starry night. Contrasting again, “Constellations” sounded like a wild, almost chaotic hurly-burly, or an intense, excited discussion (/virtuosic pizzicato, rapid accelerations & crescendi), followed by periods of silence, voices or birds / insects hushing by in “Nocturne II“. Overall, it’s definitely fascinating music, imaginative, never boring (full of tension, even suspense!), nor ever repelling—quite to the contrary. And the performance here was compelling, firm, convincing.


Beethoven: String Quartet No.8 in E minor, op.59/2, “Razumovsky”

The Composition

Also here, I have posted a detailed description and discussion of String Quartet No.8 in E minor, op.59/2, a.k.a. “Razumovsky Quartet No.2”, by Ludwig van Beethoven, hence I’m only including a list of the movements here:

  1. Allegro, 6/8
  2. Molto adagio (Si tratta questo pezzo con molto di sentimento), 4/4
  3. Allegretto — Maggiore, Theme russe — Minore, 3/4
  4. Finale: Presto, 2/2

The second one of the “Razumovsky” quartets is not just demanding (technically, as well as in the interpretation) on the musicians—it is also not easy to “take in” for the listeners, being one Beethoven’s most reserved compositions: most of the late quartets—often called “difficult”—in my opinion are easier to “understand”.

The Performance

I. Allegro

The first movement was (expectedly) fast, energetic, if not ferocious in the semiquaver runs, very expressive, vivid. The scarce use of vibrato clearly made dissonances sound “sharper”, more incisive: one could well imagine how revolutionary this must have sounded ion the ears of Beethoven’s contemporary listeners! Then, there are these almost creepy pp segments, full of tension, suspense: energetic sections competing with a moments of forlornness. And quartet playing like coming from one single mind and soul!

II. Molto adagio

In the Molto adagio, Beethoven explicitly notes “Si tratta questo pezzo con molto di sentimento” (this piece must be treated with lots of sentiment). The performance seemed to breathe exceptional calmness. It was begging, pain-loaded intervals again aggravated by minimal or no vibrato at all—then again firm, determined, with extra-distinct articulation, where the music seems to be rebelling. To me, it felt like completely making the listener live through the composer’s mind / world / feelings and anxieties.

III. Allegretto

The Allegretto is rhythmically intricate: fast, moody and rebelling, but without caricature-like exaggeration. It was anything but comfortably or playfully swaying music! Once more, the coordination, the ensemble playing with these complementary rhythms was perfect.

There is a contrasting, fugated / polyphonic Maggiore part in the center of this movement (analogous to a Trio), featuring the Russian theme (Thème russe)—a common feature in all three of the “Razumovsky Quartets”, op.59. Here, this segment shortly opens a window into another, serene, heavenly world.

IV. Finale: Presto

Again as expected, the final Presto with its galloping rhythm in the accompaniment was very fast: restless, extremely virtuosic and expressive. There were impulsive eruptions that deliberately were taken to the limits of the technically doable. With every return of the Rondo theme, the pace even seemed to step up. Clearly, expression had priority over absolute precision, over detailed articulation of the fastest quaver figures. But one need to listen very carefully to detect one of the very few small mishaps in the fastest notes.


Encore — Schumann: String Quartet No.1 in A minor, op.41/1 — III. Adagio

The audience of course expected an encore. Selecting an appropriate piece after this concert was a delicate task, requiring sensitivity and tactfulness. Another piece by Beethoven was hardly appropriate after the emotionally heavy quartet op.59/2, nor would a harmless lullaby be suitable, or joyful, light “last dance”. The Gringolts Quartet’s choice was excellent: from the String Quartet No.1 in A minor, op.41/1 by Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856), the ensemble played the third movement, Adagio: rather earnest, contemplative, but very intense and expressive, and with wonderful cantilenas. It was the perfect “transition back to real life”, the “closing statement” to a most memorable quartet evening!


Addendum:

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.


Addendum 2:

The other concert in this string quartet weekend series at the LAC in Lugano were:


Addendum 3:

The score to Henri Dutilleux’Ainsi la nuit” is rather expensive, as it is not (and will not be, for many years) available in the public domain. However, there is a video of “Ainsi la nuit” on “Dailymotion”, with score display:



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