Kitgut Quartet
Purcell, Locke, Haydn

Kirche St.Peter, Zurich, 2020-10-04


2020-10-09 — Original posting



Table of contents


Introduction

Venue, date & timeKirche St.Peter in Zurich, 2020-10-04 17:00
SeriesNeue Konzertreihe Zürich, Streichquartette in der Kirche St.Peter
OrganizerHochuli Konzert AG
Earlier, related event(s)2020-08-30: Gringolts Quartet

We are still in the time of a pandemic, which limits the number of visitors to this venue. At the same time, people are still hesitant towards attending major events in closed venues. Let me state, though, that the organizer consequently followed through on the mandated protective measures, such as isolated seating / physical distancing, controlled flow of visitors, mandatory face masks throughout the concert, the obligation to keep a register with contact data for potential contact tracing. At no time during and around the concert did we (I attended with my wife) feel endangered by a potential COVID-19 infection.


The Artists: The Kitgut Quartet

The Kitgut Quartet consists of the following members:

Amandine Beyer has emerged as one of the key exponents of historically informed playing on the violin. She first caught my attention when I heard her in a radio comparison, where her recording of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for violin solo (see the CD information at the bottom) single-handedly came out on top. It turns out that this is just one recording within a rich discography, featuring her as soloist, as well as lead member of various ensembles and formations. The most prominent ones among these are her baroque ensemble Gli Incogniti, which she founded in 2006. And now, of course, the Kitgut Quartet, which has just released its first recording, see below.

The Kitgut Quartet emerged in 2015, after Amandine Beyer encountered the other three musician and found out that they all share an interest in historically informed performances of baroque and classical music. The ensemble performs on historic instruments (see below for detail)—most prominently instruments with gut strings and historic (baroque) bows (the latter where appropriate).

The name “Kitgut” is derived from kitten (cats) and gut—and that again refers to catgut, an alternative name for the material used to make strings. It turns out that catgut strings are not made of cat gut, but rather from the intestines of sheep or goat, occasionally also of cattle, hogs, horses, mules, or donkeys.

The Ensemble’s Instruments

The concert handout and the artist’s Web sites do not mention the instruments that the ensemble uses. The one exception I found is in the booklet for the CD with the music in this concert, which mentions that the second violinist, Naaman Sluchin, plays either a 1725 violin by Carlo Annibale Tononi (1675 – 1730), or a modern violin (2008) by the American maker John Young (Salt Lake City, UT). As far as I could tell (visually, see also the photos), in this concert, he played the modern instrument, though with a baroque bow, where appropriate.

The other bit which I was able to gather was from Amandine Beyer’s Bach CD, where the booklet mentions a 1996 Baroque violin by Pierre Jaquier (a prominent maker of historic string instruments, who died in 2019). I have no reason to assume that her instrument in this concert is a different one. In the same recording, she used a 2000 baroque bow by Eduardo Gorr.

One may regret the lack of information on (some of) the instruments—however, I’m convinced that’s not because there is anything to hide. Rather, it is not relevant to the outcome of the performance: the key idea is to re-evoke the original soundscape, rather than to compete with the many modern ensembles using modernized instruments by famous makers such Stradivari, Guarneri, Guadagnini, Goffriller, etc. — more on that below.

Instruments in This Concert

All musicians used baroque bows: shorter, and with a distinct curvature away from the hair. The one exception to this is Amandine Beyer, who switched to a (late classical or modern) Tourte type bow for the Haydn quartet.

The instruments may all have been recent makes, but after historic models. A comparison between Naaman Sluchin’s modern violin and Amandine Beyer’s historic model was very instructive in demonstrating the evolution between late 17hth century violins and modern (or modernized) ones. For the former, the shorter finger board was the most obvious difference, but also the shape of the body seemed slightly more robust, wider. The other differences, namely and most prominently, the shorter neck and its smaller inclination require a side-by-side comparison for the untrained viewer.

Josèphe Cottet’s viola was a baroque model, too, as was the cello—most obviously because of the missing endpin: Frédéric Baldassare held the instrument using his lower thighs.


Program

All pieces in the program for this concert are also present on the ensemble’s CD, released earlier this year, mostly even in the order of that recording:

The links above refer to the performance remarks in the section further below. The three compositions marked with *** were not part of the printed program, but Amandine Beyer announced them during the performance. Just one movement from the CD was omitted in the concert: the Ayre from Locke’s Suite No.1

A Motto?

I can’t resist mentioning the title of the CD, which (presumably) also applies to the concert: after all, their contents were identical, merely partly re-ordered. The CD bears the title ‘Tis too late to be wise. That’s an interesting “antithesis” to “It is never too late to be wise“, a quote from chapter 12 (“A Cave retreat“) of the 1719 novel “Robinson Crusoe” by the English trader, writer, journalist, pamphleteer and spy (!) Daniel Defoe (1660 – 1731). I leave it up to the reader to contemplate the meaning of that phrase. The CD booklet does not discuss the motto, but gives an account of the history of the program and its origins.

Curiously enough, the CD bears a subtitle “String quartets before the string quartet“; it is clear what that means to say—nevertheless it is an interesting, “impossible” paradox!

Setting, etc.

Given the restrictions due to the pandemic, the concert was certainly well-attended. I had an exclusive seat on the organ balcony, next to the Rückpositiv—many thanks to the organizer!


The Composers and Their Works

Matthew Locke

Matthew Locke

The early English baroque composer Matthew Locke (1621 – 1677) grew up in Exeter and spent the second half of his life in London. He composed several operas (or Masques), numerous chamber music works, and a number of anthems. The Kitgut Quartet selected two chamber music works, both from a collection Consort of Fower Parts. This is a collection of six suites for a consort of four viols (descant, alto, tenor, and bass viol). All these suites feature four movements:

  1. Fantazie
  2. Courante
  3. Ayre
  4. Sarabande

For the concert (and the CD), the Kitgut Quartet selected

  • the Courante from Suite No.1 in D minor (the CD also features the Ayre), and
  • the entire Suite No.2 in D major, with the above four movements.

Finally, the artists performed the Curtain Tune (overture) from the 1667 stage music to the play The Tempest.

Matthew Locke: The Tempest, Curtain Tune (source: IMSLP)

John Blow

John Blow

Compositions by John Blow (1649 – 1708) didn’t feature in the original program, but one movement is included on the CD and was announced by Amandine Beyer during the concert. Blow was appointed organist at Westminster Abbey in 1668. He was one of Henry Purcell’s teachers. He composed numerous anthems, 30 odes and 14 services for royal celebrations, and 50 secular songs. And there is the masque Venus and Adonis, which he wrote in 1683. The Kitgut Quartet selected the Act Tune (overture) to act III of that masque.


Henry Purcell

Henry Purcell

One of the most prominent English composers (may be the most important one prior to the 20th century) was Henry Purcell (1659 – 1695). Purcell’s oeuvre was huge. The catalogue of his works (“Zimmerman catalogue”) lists well over 800 compositions: anthems, hymns, lots of church music, odes, songs, stage music (incidental music) and operas (the most popular one is Dido and Aeneas, Z.626, from 1688), and instrumental music. For their program, the Kitgut Quartet selected instrumental movements from operas:

In addition, we heard chamber music works:

  • From a 1680 collection of Fantasias (Z.735 – 743):
    • Fantasia à 4 No.5 in B♭ major, Z.736
    • Fantasia à 4 No.11 in G major, Z.742
  • the artists performed two pieces from a collection of “Fantasies and In nomines“, also from 1680:
    • the Chacony in G minor, Z.730
    • the Pavan in G minor, Z.752

Franz Joseph Haydn

For most people, the “inventor” (or the “father”) of the string quartet is Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809). This is undeniably true, as far as the naming of the genre is concerned. At the time Haydn’s early quartets were called Divertimento; only in his op.9, he called them string quartet. Most of these feature four movements. Between 1762 and 1803, Haydn composed 68 string quartets. All but three (op.42, op.51, and the unfinished last one, op.103) were published as collections with multiple quartets: opp.1, 2, 3, 9, 17, 20, 33, 50, 54, 64, and 76 are collections of six, opp.71 and 74 are collections of three quartets each, and op.77 features the last two completed quartets.

The String Quartet in D major, op.71/2, Hob. III:70, composed 1793, features four movements—though interestingly, both the first and the second movement are slow:

  1. Adagio
  2. Adagio cantabile
  3. Menuetto: Allegro — Trio
  4. Finale: Allegretto — Allegro

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy

The quartet offered an encore: a movement from the String Quartet No.2 in A minor, op.13 by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847). Mendelssohn’s quartet op.13 (No.2, even though it pre-dates the quartet No.1) is one of seven contributions to the genre by this composer:

  • “No.0” in E♭ major
  • No.1 in E♭ major, op.12
  • No.2 in A minor, op.13
  • No.3 in D major, op.44/1
  • No.4 in E minor, op.44/2
  • No.5 in E♭ major, op.44/3
  • No.6 in F minor, op.80

String Quartet in A minor, op.13 features the usual four movements, out of which the ensemble performed the Intermezzo:

  1. Adagio – Allegro vivace
  2. Adagio non lento — Poco più animato
  3. Intermezzo: Allegretto con moto — Allegro di molto — Tempo I
  4. Finale: Molto allegro

For more information on this composition see my notes on a concert on 2019-11-30 (where the same movement was presented as encore, too), and on a performance of the complete op.13 in a concert on 2018-10-28.


Concert & Review

General Observations

The natural, unpretentious appearance of the musicians seemed indicative of all aspects in the entire performance! So far from the dense, intense (pressed, let alone heavily vibrating) tone of many, if not most modern string quartets. Or from any tendency to produce a show of virtuosity and perfection, which often deafens the ear towards the emotional content of the music. What a pleasure and relief, indeed!

Equality, Balance

Before we even get to the tone, the articulation: it was a joy to watch the ensemble cooperate seriously, with focus and concentration, but always naturally, collegially. Four close friends who teamed up to explore the origins of the string quartet—almost like in an informal, spontaneous gathering!

One of the most striking aspects in the performance was in the internal balance: musicians with absolutely equal rights and “musical weight”, always keeping close mutual contact. None of them was ever trying to dominate—not even Amandine Beyer at the first violin! And nothing, really nothing ever gave the impression of showing off, to stand out with a particular highlight—except of course, where the score emphasizes a phrase, etc.

This also implies an excellent match in the quality & sonority of the instruments. The fact that Naaman Sluchin’s uses a modern style instrument (longer and presumably steeper fingerboard, higher string tension) is not relevant here, as what matters most is how the bow is used. And with a baroque bow and gut strings, even a modern instrument can produce a sound that is hardly distinguishable from that of period / historic style instruments.

Articulation, Tone

Light articulation is a given when musicians are using a baroque bow, and I was of course not surprised to note that vibrato was often virtually absent, or used with extreme care, just to highlight notes, or parts of a phrase. My only, really minor quibble was in an occasional, very slight tendency to produce “belly notes”. However, this was largely inconspicuous and hardly objectable at all.

The tone on the violins (in particular) was bright, never incisive, and with exceptional clarity and purity. The sound quality of Amandine Beyer’s highest register often (initially) felt unusual—relatively soft, but still retaining balance and adequate presence within the ensemble. In general, I can’t highlight particular sound qualities of individual instruments—they all matched exceptionally well.

Sound

As stated, it would be wrong to expect the dense sound of Guarneri or similar instruments using modern strings and bows: it took some moments to adjust one’s ear to the soundscape in this performance. Interestingly, I did not perceive the sound of the gut strings as particularly “grainy”. That may have to do with the careful articulation—and the pieces in the program did not invite exposing “rough” tones.

I should point out, though, that the church acoustics played a major role in the listening experience, by making the sound softer, slightly diffuse, nevertheless fitting the “historic context”. Initially, I wished for more clarity—but that may just have been a matter of adjusting my ears to the acoustics. It certainly is worth mentioning that the soundscape in this concert was vastly different from that of the studio recording with this same music. I wonder whether the musicians adjusted their playing (volume, articulation) to the venue?


Purcell — Locke

The works in this concert were loosely grouped in five blocks. The musicians performed the short pieces in the “baroque blocks” attacca, or quasi-attacca.

Henry Purcell: Fantasia à 4 No.11 in G major

A beautiful, calm and solemn piece. I instantly noted the clarity of the sound, and the exceptional purity of the intonation.

The other striking feature (to me) was, how ornaments naturally integrated into the musical flow—they were often almost or completely inconspicuous and natural. Also this: not an attempt to show off agility or inventiveness, let alone highlighting ornaments—these were simply “part of the baroque language”. This persisted through the entire performance, also in the Haydn quartet.

Henry Purcell: Curtain Tune on a Ground from “Timon of Athens”

In a minor key (G minor), more determined, earnest, agile, also virtuosic, but always transparent, light in the articulation, with clarity and exceptional balance.

Matthew Locke: Curtain Tune from “The Tempest”

The first three pieces seemed to follow a popular, baroque pattern, slow – fast – slow. However, that Curtain Tune in itself is not just solemn, full of warm emotions, but features outbreaks, almost an eruptions of liveliness in the center: beautiful!

It was enlightening to note how the purity of the intonation and the absence of vibrato preserved the acuteness, the sharpness of dissonant intervals (e.g., with transition notes).


Matthew Locke: Suite No.2 in D major

So natural and lively, with the theme retaining its “talking” dynamics in every occurrence, living in every voice, through the multi-faceted Fantazie. Striking: the sudden change to an earnest tone in the slow (dragging) last bars! The Courante offres a sharp contrast: a lively, rural country dance, with distinct, heavy accents.

The Ayre was full of life in every voice, with Amandine Beyer’s lovely, little cadenzas at double bars.

Those who expected a “German baroque” Sarabande may have been surprised: the first part (3/2 time) is unexpectedly fast, joyfully dancing—a reminder of the original (16th century Spanish) Zarabanda (apparently considered disreputable!). The second part switches to 4/4 time, for a solemn, conciliatory ending—such a pleasure to listen to the fading sound of the final fermata!


Joseph Haydn: String Quartet in D major, op.71/2

Despite a short pause of maybe half a minute, the ensemble was able to maintain the suspense, hereby avoiding applause (which followed most other blocks of music). This may have pleased those who think applause “in-between” is merely a disruption. More importantly, however, this silent pause formed a bridge between early baroque consort music and Haydn’s classical string quartet—and among these, even a mature (though not revolutionary) one.

In a way, it was the crucial moment in the entire program, in that it demonstrated how (aspects of) the string quartet genre naturally evolved out of 4-part consort music (even though the latter fell out of fashion at the height of German baroque music). The ensemble’s choice of repertoire for this concert (and their CD) was of course not accidental. Not all—probably not many—of Haydn’s string quartets may have served that purpose as well as this one!

I. Adagio

The first bar, the starting chord and the subsequent p response with a fermata, already “said it all”: so far from a cold showpiece in brilliance and polished perfection! Nothing was harsh, gentle and warm tone and articulation in both the initial chord and the response, the entire Adagio introduction. Grippier then the Allegro, also a little grainier—but always light in the articulation! The tone remained light and transparent, none of the musicians was ever dominating. Yes, there was virtuosity and agility in the semiquaver passages, but that remained integrated into a harmonious ensemble performance.

That is not to say that the Kitgut Quartet wasn’t able to be dramatic: in fact, at the climaxes, the semiquaver figures built up to a veritable storm—within the intimacy of a historic quartet performance, of course.

The quartet of course repeated the exposition. They omitted the repeat of the second part (development, recap)—for the sonata form in a late Haydn quartet, this is perfectly OK—the second repeat was kept as tribute to baroque conventions.

II. Adagio cantabile

I noted the careful, subtle balance between melody voice and accompaniment. Subtlety also in the use of an occasional vibrato, merely to highlight key notes in a phrase. Equally enlightening: the often liberal reading of Haydn’s score, with aptly, and inconspicuously added extra ornaments—nothing felt put-on, but remained harmonious and integrated at all times.

III. Menuetto: Allegro — Trio

Natural virtuosity in the Menuetto—and here, it was primarily the Trio which (to me) brought about aspects, the spirit of early baroque consort music. That may have been just my personal impression, though.

IV. Finale: Allegretto — Allegro

So gentle, the tone in the mezza voce / staccato beginning in the Allegretto—yet retaining grip, full presence and attention! Still, even the virtuosic, exhilarating, almost boiling Allegro closure retained elasticity, remained natural, an outbreak of joy!


Blow — Locke — Purcell

Amandine Beyer announced three extra movements. These not only (almost) completed the presentation the ensemble’s CD recording—it also brought about contrast, and a gentle and harmonious transition mack to baroque consort music.

John Blow: Act Tune from “Venus and Adonis”

Stately, calm, almost ceremonial: an overture that sets the tone for the drama that was to follow…

Matthew Locke: Courante from the Suite No.1 in D minor

A short, lively dance, full of accents and “jumping punctuations”…

Henry Purcell: Aria “Fairest Isle” from “King Arthur”

The music in this block took an almost unexpected turn into the intimacy of this “cosy, gentle evensong”—which must have been a “hit piece” in Purcell’s opera! First, Amandine Beyer presented the theme alone, then joined by the cello playing the bass line, as Amandine Beyer added rich ornamentation. Finally, the quartet played the 4-voice setting that actually forms the introduction to Purcell’s “Song”. Beautiful music, needless to say.


Henry Purcell

Without much of a pause, the performance moved into the last block:

Fantasia à 4 No.5 in B♭ major

A solemn introduction with intricate harmonies, leading into a lively fantasy—leggiero at first, progressively lively and polyphonic. It’s a prime example of music for a consort of four viols.

Hornpipe from “King Arthur”

A lively dance movement at the closure of the second act (out of five) in Purcell’s opera—so short (despite the repeats) that the ensemble performed it two more times: the first one entirely pizzicato, then again coll’ arco, with diminuendo coda on the first violin that almost ghastly hushed away into silence (or behind the curtain?). Enthralling, fascinating!

Pavan in G minor

More contrast! The Pavan turned into a mourning, wistful mood—an In nomine, a commemoration of a beloved person, or a royalty?

Chacony in G minor

The Chacony followed attacca, almost seamlessly—though, of course, the form of a Chaconne was instantly evident from the constantly recurring harmonic sequence / 8-tone bass theme. For a last time in this concert, one could enjoy the harmonious integration of ornamentation into the melody lines. And the Kitgut Quartet retained its attention to intonation: the “beauty of dissonances” in appoggiaturas!


Kitgut Quartet @ St.Peter, Zurich, 2020-10-04 (© Rolf Kyburz)

Encore and Conclusion

As encore, as mentioned above, Amandine Beyer announced an unspecified “little surprise”. That turned out to be the third movement (Intermezzo) from Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No.2 in A minor. This extended the timeline of the concert by 30 more years, into the beginning of the romantic period. At the same time, The Kitgut Quartet demonstrated that the ensemble’s concept of historically informed performances is perfectly suited also for music of the early romantic period.

Again, vibrato was used very, very sparingly in the somewhat moody Allegretto con moto—and nothing seemed amiss! The Allegro di molto (the first edition even read Presto) was not ultra-polished, but still highly virtuosic: a stormy wind playing with leaves in a tree, distant weather lights,semiquavers hushing by—airy in the articulation, yet also slightly grainy in the staccato. So very Mendelssohnian, with very articulate dynamics, ghastly and enthralling, thrilling!

I’m an avid fan of historically informed performances, and within the genre of string quartets, the Kitgut Quartet is not alone in this area. However, what I found most striking and most refreshing here: that the performance was devoid of academic, didactic or demonstrative attitude, of trying to be exemplary. In a way, of course, they were exemplary, indeed—in their unimposing naturalness, their unpretentiousness: trying to let the music speak to the listener’s and the artist’s hearts—hardly surpassed by any other formation right now!


CDs with These Artists

Kitgut Quartet — ‘Tis too late to be wise

String quartets before the string quartet

Kitgut Quartet

harmonia mundi musique, HMM 902313 (CD stereo, ℗ / © 2020)
Booklet: 20pp., fr/en


Amandine Beyer’s Bach Partitas and Sonatas on CD

J.S. Bach: Sonatas & Partitas BWV 1001 – 1006
J.G. Pisendel: Sonata a violino solo senza basso

Amandine Beyer

Zig-Zag Territoires, ZZT 110902 (2 CDs stereo, ℗ / © 2011)
Booklet: 20pp., fr/en


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