Gringolts Quartet
Mozart / Tchaikovsky

Kirche St.Peter, Zurich, 2020-08-30

5-star rating

2020-09-04 — Original posting



Outline


Introduction

After the restart of the concerts in the Kirche St.Peter in Zurich in June (see my reports on the two solo recitals: a violin recital, and a cello recital, both on 2020-06-28), Hochuli Konzert AG now also re-launched its series of string quartet recitals in this venue. The restart is a careful one, with just two concerts for the season 2020/2021. I will almost certainly report about the second one (2020-10-04), too. The attribute “careful” of course also (rightfully) applies to the protective measures in connection with the pandemic, see again my reports on the recitals on 2020-06-28.


The Artists: The Gringolts Quartet

Gringolts Quartet (founded 2008, Zurich). The ensemble consists of the following members:

  • Ilya Gringolts, violin by Antonio Stradivari, Cremona, 1718, “ex-Prové”
  • Anahit Kurtikyan, violin by Camillo Camilli, Mantova, 1733
  • Silvia Simionescu, viola by Jacobus Januarius (Giacomo Gennaro), Cremona, 1660
  • Claudius Herrmann, cello by Maggini, Brescia, 1600

For additional details on the ensemble and its artists, as well as for reviews on earlier concerts with these artists see my postings from concerts in Lugano, on 2017-04-21, in Brugg, AG, on 2018-05-05, and at the ZHdK in Zurich, on 2020-02-24.


Program

Almost exactly half a year ago, I attended a quartet recital by exactly the same artists. See my report on the concert at ZHdK, Zurich, 2020-02-24. This was one of the last concerts prior to the lockdown, and it also featured two compositions. This latest recital featured works by Mozart and Tchaikovsky:

The main work was the third quartet by Tchaikovsky. That same composition also appeared in the recital half a year ago. Is it worth revisiting this performance after only half a year? Well, for one, I can hardly resist attending a performance by this ensemble. They fascinated me already in my first encounter in April 2017. Then, the concert at ZHdK in February was in a totally different environment and especially completely different acoustics.

Setting, etc.

The organizer was kind enough to offer us (I attended the concert with my wife) seats on the organ balcony, such that I could take photos with a decent view, and without disrupting others in the audience. Considering the pandemic and the resulting protective measures, the concert was well-attended. Wearing masks was mandatory for the audience, people in the nave were sitting isolated, alone or in groups of two (with the exception of a few family groups). I estimated that around 30 – 40% of the seats were occupied, which under these circumstances meant “full”.


Concert & Review

Mozart: String Quartet No.13 in D minor, K.173

In late summer 1773, during his third trip to Vienna, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) wrote a set of 6 string quartets (K.168 – K.173), now known as “Viennese Quartets”. The last one of these, his quartet No.13 overall, is the only one in a minor key. It features the following four movements:

  1. Allegro ma molto moderato
  2. Andantino grazioso
  3. Menuetto – Trio
  4. Allegro

The Performance

This was not my first concert under pandemic circumstances. Many more are to follow. Still, the situation wasn’t simply “back to a new normal”, but still felt rather unusual. As Ilya Gringolts pointed out on social media, for the quartet it was indeed the first public appearance after almost exactly half a year. This must also have contributed to the very special atmosphere during the first bars:

I. Allegro ma molto moderato

The movement begins with 8 soft bars, all p, with a sad falling motif, in bar #1 just in the first violin. And Ilya Gringolts took this one step further by using mellow articulation, and a virtually flat tone, essentially without vibrato. This instantly created a feeling of void, of loneliness and introversion, of melancholy and despair—infinitely depressing. Luckily, in bar #9, Mozart breaks the mood with a resolute, initially ascending, main theme. And together with the supportive church acoustics, this *pulled everybody in” at once. The articulation remained light, discharging long notes, transparent, “simple”, yet expressive.

The Gringolts Quartet didn’t seem to seek polished instrumental perfection. Yet, there wasn’t a rough tone, throughout the composition. What was immaculate, perfect, though, was the intonation, throughout the performance! The second pass of the exposition seemed more forward-looking. Was this just my impression as a listener? Conversely, when the ensemble repeated the second part (development & recap), that felt slightly more reflective, introspective. But again, this could also just be me, listening to the music with a slightly different attitude? Repeats make sense, for sure!

I very much liked the simplicity of the playing: so natural, and there was no attempt to boost the expression (e.g., with extra vibrato or with a “big tone”). Yet, nothing seemed to be missing! I also noted the subtle tempo alterations: dramatic f outbreaks were a tiny bit faster, the melancholic recurrences of the initial motif a tad retained. Of course that was never through neglect, but obviously deliberate, intentional. It all made perfect sense.

II. Andantino grazioso

After the earnest mood in the first movement, the Andante grazioso may look / feel like a harmless Rococo. Yes, the musical motifs & themes use simple Rococo gestures, and the Gringolts Quartet kept the tone, the articulation simple. Still, the interpretation was so rich in dynamic details, carefully crafted dynamics, subtle tempo management. Yet, it all sounded so entirely natural…

This was how I picture historically informed performances (HIP)! It does not necessarily require gut strings, “pre-romanticized” string instruments, baroque or early classical bows. What matters is not a big tone, instrumental perfection, etc., but how the artists use their bow, how they articulate, vibrato (or the lack thereof), portamento (used with care), the musical “language”. Just to illustrate: Silvia Simionescu used a Tourte type bow, but in the Mozart quartet, she held it not at the frog, but some 10 cm (4 inches) towards the middle, which had a substantial effect on the articulation and the tone.

The Gringolts didn’t just demonstrate all this, but they provided a prime example of how early Mozart quartets can be brought to true life! In my notes, I find remarks such as “100% coherent / consistent“, and “Can’t be any better!“.

III. Menuetto – Trio

A Menuetto? Really? Mozart’s composition rather feels like a Scherzo, with its constant alterations between retained, reflecting motifs and (short) violent segments / outbreaks, whereby the lead role / melody is clearly in the first violin. The quartet is using subtle tempo nuances: a tad restrained in the reflecting p bars and “leaning forward” in the f outbreaks, such as in the last outbreak in bars 31ff.

The Trio is much more calm, peace- and playful. Ilya Gringolts had the clear lead role, harmoniously seconded by his wife, Anahit Kurtikyan, standing opposite him. Despite the lead, the first violin remained admirably unpretentious. Altogether, I can hardly imagine more natural, unanimous / harmonious ensemble playing: not ambitious, not polished perfection. Just pure delight, relaxed, yet with constant, emotional presence!

The artists performed the Menuetto da capo with both repeats, whereby Ilya Gringolts very aptly added some extra ornaments, such as short transition scales, extra transition notes, etc., in the second passes. All of this felt just natural, never put-on or over-ambitious. Excellent!

IV. Allegro

The final movement is a short, yet highly artful fugue. Here, the theme, a descending chromatic scale, alternates between two forms (the even instances start with a falling minor third). Baroque fugues (most prominently those in the “The Art of the Fugue”, BWV 1080 by Johann Sebastian Bach, 1685 – 1750) are often seen as a highly intellectual, “strict” genre. Consequently, musicians often perform fugues in a very strict, dogmatic fashion, typically involving very resolute f articulation. None of this here!

Mozart writes f for the theme in every voice. Yet, the artists didn’t start marcato, but made the first (half) note appear gently, almost pp, only gradually growing into f. Nothing felt enforced, strict. Just natural, harmonious, culminating in the bars prior to the fermata. Though, the latter did not grow into a loud climax! It rather descended into a mysterious pp: ingenious! After the fermata, a first stretta (starting in the cello, pp / very softly) features “straight” and inverted versions of the theme. A gentle dynamic arch leads back to pp, and after a general rest and a highly mysterious, soft transition, a very narrow stretta feels like a violent eruption. That ends abruptly, and another, final stretta, once more all pp, ends the piece in a calm mood, with a soothing D major cadence. A true masterpiece!

Especially the final movement with its many chromatic notes is highly critical in the intonation. This was a particular challenge here, because there was virtually no vibrato that could have veiled any possible intonation issues. Not surprisingly, however, the ensemble’s intonation was flawless, even perfect throughout. Loved it, from beginning to end: as good as it can get!

Rating: ★★★★★


Tchaikovsky: String Quartet No.3 in E♭ minor, op.30 (1876)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) wrote three string quartets. His op.30 is the last one.It was composed in 1876, as a memorial for the Czech violinist and composer Ferdinand Laub (1832 – 1875). Tchaikovsky’s op.30 features four movements as follows:

  1. Andante sostenuto — Allegro moderato
  2. Allegretto vivo e scherzando
  3. Andante funebre e doloroso, ma con moto
  4. Finale: Allegro non troppo e risoluto — Vivace

As mentioned above, this quartet was already featuring in the last recital by these artists in February 2020. I did not revisit my notes or my review from that event before attending this concert. I wanted to have a fresh impression in this environment. Of course, given that there were almost no concerts since February, the memory from that recital is still pretty fresh and vivid. Déjà vu moments were guaranteed!

The Performance

Some general remarks first: Expectedly, here, the ensemble switched to a more romantic approach, with notable, though never obtrusive vibrato. I also noted the occasional use of portamento. However, also this felt natural, perfectly adequate to this period, the composer, and the composition.

I. Andante sostenuto — Allegro moderato

As stated: here, the musicians used a more “romantic” (& Russian?) approach. That did not prevent them from presenting the slow introduction with a gentle, “elastic” tone, especially in the initial, sad / longing pp bars. In bar #9, the first violin erupted into a rebelling outcry, the rest of the introduction was an intense lamentation, with the cello starting the final phrase in an ascending, but all sotto voce scale. The response from the other instruments was all ethereal, seemed to come from a world beyond…

The tone in the Allegro moderato seemed rather elegiac, often uncertain, asking, reflecting, constantly changing. Here, I noted the excellent dynamic balance within the ensemble. And how well the instruments fitted together to form one body. That doesn’t mean that the instruments lost their individuality. This was most pronounced in Ilya Gringolts’ Strad, with its warm, at times almost dark lower register, or in the distinct sound color of Silvia Simionescu’s viola. About dynamics / balance: often, the first violin dominates in quartets. Here, however, Ilya Gringolts seamlessly integrated into the ensemble sound. To a degree where at times I found him almost too modest (e.g., in the semiquavers in bars 413ff).

Yes, there was vibrato—however, no excess in romanticism, and nothing ever felt overblown, also when the tone rose to an unanimous climax. In the latter, the quartet retained transparency, clarity. I also noted was the ensemble’s distinct use rubato and agogics, and the careful dynamics, the most subtle pp, e.g., in bars 223ff.

To me, the real, emotional highlight was not in the lively, dynamic climaxes, but in the Andante sostenuto coda with its warm, glowing, touching expression, gradually retracting to ppp!
★★★★★

II. Allegretto vivo e scherzando

In this short, often ghastly movement, the tempo was very (but not really too) fast, challenging. The performance remained light, but never turned to extroverted virtuosity or show. Tone and articulation were always controlled. It’s just that occasionally, one might have wished for a little more clarity on the part of the acoustics.
★★★★½

III. Andante funebre e doloroso, ma con moto

A funeral march of sorts, dark, somber, and performed entirely with mutes. Despite that, it was truly amazing how much volume the ensemble was able to produce, while maintaining balance and unanimous expression throughout. Pain, sadness, mourning, truly piangendo, where the composer asks for it. However, this never turned larmoyant, whining. There was no dragging or exaggeration (the annotation states “mournful and painful, ma con moto“). Not just the first violin featured a warm low register, but also Anahit Kurtikyan’s Camilli violin set a touching highlight with the ostinato B♭ in bars 29ff. Then, of course, the viola in bars 40ff was so warm, “talking”! One by one, every instrumented joined the lamenting with its own, expressive solo.

Slowly, the movement grows into an emotional climax, before the music modulates from E♭ minor to F♯ major. Tchaikovsky still states con dolore. Yet, there seems to be hope. That hope is in vain, E♭ minor returns, and with it this infinite sadness, the mourning, accompanied here by the Claudius Herrmann’s inexorable, pulsating cello ostinato. The movement appears to end in total forlornness, devastating hopelessness. But the ethereal last bars (luckily!) indicate transfiguration, salvation, moving towards a light from heaven. Both music and interpretation were infinitely touching—beyond words!
★★★★★

IV. Finale: Allegro non troppo e risoluto — Vivace

Surprisingly, Tchaikovsky switches to E♭ major and ends his op.30 with a moody, often whirling folk dance, full of rhythmic shifts. Occasionally, the music made the listener think of a distant lightning storm, with stormy weather approaching. Virtuosic, dramatic sometimes (reaching limits with the church acoustics), but always fascinating!

Unexpectedly, the music slows down for a moment of reflection (a memento mori?). And then, a short, virtuosic, yet light and playful Vivace ends the composition in joyful, forward-looking E♭ major.

I’m sure everybody in the audience felt the relief that this movement offered after all the sadness and mourning!
★★★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★★★

One should keep in mind that the first three movements (largely) are in the “impossible” key of E♭ minor. This is awkward to play on string instruments. However, none of this affected the performance, the intonation remained impeccable—seemingly effortlessly! This was quartet playing beyond technicalities. Just pure expression and emotion!


Encore — Dvořák: No.3 from “Cypresses” (Cypřiše) for String Quartet, B.152

In 1865, Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904) composed 18 love songs, published under the title “Cypresses” (Cypřiše), B.11, based on poems by Gustav Pfleger Moravský (1833 – 1875). 1887, 22 years later, Dvořák arranged 12 of these songs (Nos. 2-4, 6-9, 12, 14, and 16-18) for string quartet. He published these under the same name, “Cypresses” (Cypřiše) for String Quartet, B.152.

When Claudius Herrmann announced a piece from Dvořák’s “Cypresses”, I instantly remembered the encore that the ensemble offered in Brugg on 2018-05-05. However, this time, they did not elect the Nr.9 (“Thou only dear one but for me” / Ó duše drahá jedinká), but rather the song Nr.3, “When Thy Sweet Glances Fall on Me” (V té sladké moci očí tvých). The interpretation of that encore was so atmospheric, filled with love, and full of the melancholic tone that is so typical of Dvořák! So serene, so peaceful! I could hardly think of a more fitting closure for this concert, giving consolation and hope in this uncertain time of the pandemic. Thanks a lot!


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