Gringolts Quartet
Schönberg / Tchaikovsky

ZHdK, Zurich, 2020-02-24

4.5-star rating

2020-03-04 — Original posting

2018-05-05 Brugg/AG, Zimmermannhaus: Gringolts Quartet
Concert Gringolts Quartet, 2018-05-05 (© Rolf Kyburz, all rights reserved)
Zweimal Streichquartett Nr.3 op.30—Schönberg und Tschaikowsky — Zusammenfassung

Das “schwierige Werk” zuerst. Das Streichquartett Nr.3 op.30 von Arnold Schönberg ist ein Werk der Dodekaphonie. Die Themen sind 12-Ton-Reihen, verschließen sich somit traditionellen / konventionellen Harmonie- und Melodieverläufen. Das Gringolts-Quartett verstand es ausgezeichnet, die konstruierten, intellektuellen Aspekte dieser Komposition in den Hintergrund treten zu lassen. Statt dessen ließen sich die emotionalen Inhalte, die durchaus auch vorhandenen Anspielungen an traditionelle Wiener Volksmusik beispielhaft erleben. Die Aufführung war hervorragend in ihrer Kohärenz, der dynamischen Ausgeglichenheit, der rhythmischen und intonatorischen Sicherheit.

Das 50 Jahre früher entstandene Streichquartett Nr.3 in es-moll, op.30 von Tschaikowsky bildete einen starken, ja extremen Kontrast. Hier stand nun Stimmung, Emotion, Ausdrucksstärke im Vordergrund. Der emotionale Höhepunkt war zweifelsohne der dritte Satz. Eine intensive Trauermusik, deren unendlicher Schmerz unmittelbar berührte. Obwohl, oder vielleicht gerade weil das Gringolts-Quartett Ausdruck vor Klangschönheit stellte.


Concert Hall, ZHdK, Zurich, 2020-02-24 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Concert Hall No.3 (Level 7), ZHdK, Zurich, 2020-02-24 (© Rolf Kyburz)


On floor / level 7 of their generous new location (the “Toni-Areal”, a former yoghurt factory), the ZHdK (Zürcher Hochschule der Künste, Zurich University of the Arts) features several concert halls. One of these halls (No.3) was the venue for this “Spektrum” concert, a series of concerts at variable intervals—up to weekly. I had been in this hall once before, for a singer’s master recital. It’s nice, not huge, but adequate for its purpose, and it features good acoustics, at least for chamber music.

The concert hall was less than half-full. There was no entry fee. Donations fed the University’s scholarship fund. I took a seat in the center of a row in the rear, slightly ascending part of the audience.

The Artists

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, and in Brugg, AG, on 2018-05-05.


The Gringolts Quartet performed two works. None of these were Vienna Classics, nor even from the classic period in general. At least, the first was written and premiered in Vienna—in the context of the “Second Viennese School”. The second work pre-dates the first one by half a century:

Interestingly (and very likely not just by sheer coincidence), both works are the respective composer’s No.3, and both bear the designation “op.30”.

Concert & Review

Schönberg: String Quartet No.3, op.30 (1927)

Arnold Schönberg (1874 – 1951) wrote four “official” string quartets, plus an early work in D major, published only after the composer’s death. The String Quartet No.3, op.30 was commissioned in 1927 by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (1864 – 1953) and premiered in Vienna, in September 1927. This composition is a representative of dodecaphony (twelve-tone serialism). However, it is modeled after the String Quartet No.13 in A minor (“Rosamunde Quartet”), op.29, D.804 by Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828). Like the latter work, Schönberg’s quartet features four movements:

  1. Moderato
  2. Adagio
  3. Intermezzo: Allegro moderato
  4. Rondo: Molto moderato

The Performance

Before I start commenting here, let me state that this was my first encounter with Schönberg’s op.30. I downloaded the score for this performance, but did not familiarize myself with the music (e.g., by watching YouTube videos, listening to the composition on streaming sites, etc.). Part of this was due to time constraints. But then, I felt that it would also be valuable to describe the “genuine” impression of a listener who is not intimately familiar with Schönberg’s composition.

Contemporary? Classics?

Not surprisingly, a performance with utmost coherence! Contemporary music is Ilya Gringolts’ “daily bread” (he just recently pointed out how much it means to him). So, the Gringolts Quartet just effortlessly, naturally “walked” through this piece with its intricate challenges in intonation, as if it was a piece of Vienna Classics! But of course, it is not contemporary music. It is not only modeled after a quartet by Franz Schubert, and it was written in Vienna. In many ways, this music breathes the spirit of Vienna Classics. And indeed, by now it is very far from typical, contemporary string quartet compositions.

True, Schönberg refuses to use any classical melodic schemes, classical harmonies, tonality altogether. These felt “used up”. As a “recipe”, a method to stay away from melodic and harmonic idiosyncrasies of past musical styles (that’s my personal interpretation), he invented 12-tone serialism, a.k.a. dodecaphony. At the heart of dodecaphony is (amongst other rules) the constraint that every half-tone of the chromatic scale must appear once—and only once. This already pretty much precludes “traps” such as the classic cadence, and hereby (some or most of) the “harmonic pull” that has been so typical (and a “driving feature”) of most music over the preceding several hundred years.

However, contrary to what some might believe, the intellectual backbone, the constraints of dodecaphony do not make such music aimless cacophony. Quite to the contrary! Schönberg’s op.30 is an excellent example for this.

Encountering the Ensemble

In the earlier concerts that I witnessed, Ilya Gringolts had been playing a Guarneri violin. However, irrespective of the “size” of the instruments (i.e., its potential in power, projection, volume), he never dominated the ensemble beyond the role that the composer assigned to the first violin. Now, with a 1718 Stradivarius, his role within the quartet seemed even more integrated than what I remember from the preceding concerts. Collegial, cooperative and coherent playing in the best sense of the word.

The collegiality between the musicians, the equivalence among the members of the ensemble was evident also from the virtual absence of active (visible) control and direction on the part of Ilya Gringolts, throughout the recital. Right at the beginning, his spouse at the second violin, Anahit Kurtikyan, and Silvia Simionescu (viola) were alone for four bars, and for an additional 14 bars, it’s these two instruments which (in close mutual interaction) control the pace. And in the third movement (Intermezzo), the first violin even remains silent for 18 bars. In such moments, the control just naturally went to other members of the ensemble, while the first violinist almost casually seemed to watch and listen only. Sharing control and responsibility at a high level.

I. Moderato

The movement starts with an idée fixe, a 1-bar motif of fast staccato quavers. This initially alternates between second violin and viola, later is passed around between all four voices, sometimes in canon-like fashion, occasionally in three voices. That motif forms a lively, often excited discourse. The actual 12-tone theme (not sure whether Schönberg wanted listeners to view this as a melody) sets in at bar 5, in the first violin, spanning 9 bars and more than 2.5 octaves. That theme itself is passed on between the voices, often resembling a fugue, in which the almost continuous chain of quaver motifs forms a kind of comes (Latin for companion) to the 12-tone theme.

Besides the contrast between the 12-tone series and the quaver comes, the movement goes through contrasting atmospheres. A sophisticated discourse, alternating between pondering, contemplation, and lively, animated discussion between equivalent partners / parties. Dissonant? Not really! An emphatic, engaged performance with verve! Entertaining and interesting? Sure!

II. Adagio

Despite some dissonances: serene, calm, beautiful music, in a highly atmospheric performance! Initially, there is very little rhythmic drive—just peace and contemplation. But then, there are periods in which the secondary voices add a (typically Viennese?) dance element, the again short dynamic waves build up to emote, even dramatic moments between the lyrical, serene segments featuring the main theme. To me, an extremely subtle experience! And yes, highly harmonious, not just despite the dissonances, but because of the ensemble’s coherence, its subtle balance and dynamic control, and because intonation never was an issue here!

III. Intermezzo: Allegro moderato

On the surface, this may sound austere, maybe even scarce. However, the performance made this feel jolly, playful in its tightly interconnected rhythmic structure, the seamless interchange of motifs between the voices. These build up to dramatic moments full of momentum, verve. However, also here, the composer could not resist adding serene, even contemplative moments. It’s a subtle mix of lightly dancing segments and heavier, pesante moments, full of subtle tempo alterations (Schönberg is very detailed and very specific in his score).

An atmospheric masterwork, both as composition, as well as in the interpretation, with its coherence in musical flow and dramatic progression!

IV. Rondo: Molto moderato

The Gringolts Quartet did not make attempts to make this sound “nice”, the articulation was deliberately rough, where the composer asked for this in the score. The result was an interesting mix of contrariness at the surface—and, yes, harmonious, playful rhythmic elegance. Again, I felt some Viennese (folk) dance allusions.

True, there is no “harmonic pull”. Harmonic progression, yes, but not one which aims at resolution in a cadence. The ending of the piece feels like a question mark. The listener forgets about harmonies & dissonances. However, all the more, one is captured by the compelling (motivic and rhythmic) dramatic flow. Definitely so in this authoritative interpretation!

Being at the Zurich University of the Arts, this wasn’t quite the average audience (there were numerous of the musician’s students, as well as colleagues from orchestras, etc.). Still, the length and intensity of the applause was quite telling!

Rating: ★★★★½

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

The Performance

I. Andante sostenuto —

What a change in atmosphere! Where Schönberg declined traditional esthetics, Tchaikovsky (a mere 50 years earlier!) puts beautiful sonority and atmosphere, lyrical intensity, deep melancholy and longing, right from the first notes! And in bar 21, with the stepping pizzicato accompaniment, we instantly find ourselves in the atmosphere of the composer’s big symphonies! Though, interestingly, the melody in the first violin (later taken over by the cello and the other voices) also reminded me of music by Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904), in particular from his “American” period. The intensity of these cantilenas: wonderful!

— Allegro moderato

I found the ensemble’s soundscape lucid, transparent, yet of very high intensity in the melody lines, down to every single motif. An appropriate amount of vibrato and frequent, but subtle portamento, and occasionally emphasis on every single note highlighted the folk character of the melodies.

I enjoyed the excellent internal balance, from soft, gentle segments up to emote, expressive and dramatic highlights. And, of course, just as much the uniformity in articulation, expression and dynamics. It was most amazing to observe how close Claudius Herrmann’s cello and Silvia Simionescu’s viola were occasionally getting in the smoothness of their sound, voicing and articulation. The two instruments occasionally seemed almost indistinguishable. Overall, an ensemble with perfect inner balance, fit / matching sound, and partnership. No instrument was dominating, each voice was let come forward, as appropriate. And of course, they all unanimously joined forces for the impressive, broad and dramatic climax.

II. Allegretto vivo e scherzando

Playful, virtuosic, agile. The Gringolts Quartet is aiming for expression rather than polished sound. Actually, the artists left the sonority deliberately scarce, somewhat rough. This particularly highlighted the scherzando aspect, and ghastly character of the passages where a short motif is passed from the first violin down to the cello. The seamless transitions in these motif chains demonstrated the perfection in internal coordination, the playing out of one single spirit & mind.

The “raw” tone of the rapid, outer segments made the elegiac, lyrical character of the central espressivo section (bars 57 – 99) stand out even more.

III. Andante funebre e doloroso, ma con moto

A very interesting, even strange movement, with all instruments playing with mute! An intense, “broken” mood, fog, mourning, a funeral lament, intense pain (con dolore, indeed!), sobbing, sighing, unanimous playing. Yet, each voice retains its individuality. A deep, mourning discourse. In the end, the music retracts into the finest ppp, finally dying away, leaving only distant memories, despair, infinite sadness. A strongly emotional movement with the potential to touch to tears. I can hardly think of music sadder than this! It’s the highlight of the composition, and strong music altogether.

Sure enough, the long pause between this piece and the Finale was actually needed—not for tuning the instruments!

IV. Finale: Allegro non troppo e risoluto — Vivace

The Finale begins as a heavy, moody dance. However, after a few bars changes into a virtuosic piece full of syncopes and rhythmic intricacies. Lots of momentum, tension, suspense—and unanimous, almost “orchestral” playing out of one single mind. An impressive performance, way beyond technicalities.

Rating: ★★★★


Needless to say that this concert confirmed my impressions from previous recitals with the Gringolts Quartet. If there is anything that was less impressive, then it’s the size of the venue, the physical distance to the listener. The previous concerts (Lugano, 2017-04-21, and in Brugg, 2018-05-05) had both been in much smaller, more intimate settings, which automatically established a much closer connection to the listener, irrespective of the repertoire performed. And the smaller settings offered not only additional spatial resolution, clarity and transparency, but also more acoustic support, especially for the cello—and a more immersive experience overall.

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