Merel Quartet & Castalian String Quartet
Mendelssohn, Schumann

Aula KZO, Wetzikon ZH, 2019-09-28

3.5-star rating

2019-10-06 — Original posting



Outline


Introduction

A mere week after I attended a concert by the Merel Quartet (see my concert report from 2019-09-22), I had a chance to hear the same musicians again, this time in Wetzikon, in the aula of the local high school (KZO, Kantonsschule Zürcher Oberland), a little town near where I live. The ensemble started with one of the pieces (Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No.1, op.12) that also opened the preceding concert. Then, however, a second ensemble, the Castalian String Quartet, took over the stage, presenting Robert Schumann’s second string quartet. And after the intermission, the two ensembles teamed up for the “key attraction” of the evening, Mendelssohn’s famous String Octet.

With the exception of the press pictures above, all photos are by the author (© Rolf Kyburz, all rights reserved). Select any picture to view the photos in slideshow mode.


Artists

Merel Quartet

For details on the Merel Quartet (founded in 2002) see my report on their previous quartet recital in Zurich, on 2019-09-22. Here, I’ll just list the members of the ensemble:

  • Mary Ellen Woodside, violin
  • Edouard Mätzener, violin
  • Alessandro D’Amico, viola
  • Rafael Rosenfeld, cello

Castalian String Quartet

The Castalian String Quartet describes itself as follows: “Formed in 2011, the Castalian String Quartet studied with Oliver Wille (Kuss Quartet) at the Hannover University of Music, Drama and Media, graduating with a Masters degree. Awards include 1st Prize at the 2015 Lyon Chamber Music Competition and 3rd Prize at the 2016 Banff International String Quartet Competition. Today, we all reside in London, rehearsing in South Kensington and giving concerts everywhere from the Wigmore Hall to Warren Hill prison, Carnegie Hall to the Colombian rainforest.” These are the members of the ensemble:

  • Sini Simonen, violin (Finland)
  • Daniel Roberts, violin (Wales, U.K.)
  • Charlotte Bonneton, viola (France)
  • Christopher Graves, cello (England, U.K.)

Program

The concert program was outlined in the introduction above:

Setting, etc.

The aula in the high school in Wetzikon offers seats for far more people than a typical piano or chamber music recital would attract. However, as the hall is inspired by antique theatre architecture, with the stage in the center of a (near) semi-circular, steeply ascending audience, it feels cosy even if less than half-full, and the acoustics are excellent for such concerts. My wife and I took seats in the rear of the right-hand side block. These offer a good view and the opportunity to take photos without disturbing other members of the audience. Yet, in terms of acoustics, they are about as good as any other seat in the hall.


Concert and Review

Mendelssohn: String Quartet No.1 in E♭ major, op.12

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847) composed his String Quartet No.1 in E♭ major, op.12, the first contribution to this genre, in 1829, at age 20. The work has four movements:

  1. Adagio non troppo – Allegro non tardante
  2. Canzonetta: Allegretto
  3. Andante espressivo
  4. Molto allegro e vivace

The Performance

The Merel Quartet also performed Mendelssohn’s first string quartet in their recital in Zurich, just a week ago, on 2019-09-22, see my concert review on that event. With the exception of the acoustics and the venue, this was mostly a repeat experience. Therefore, my comments below are somewhat sketchy.

Expectedly (and as the pictures show), the ensemble performed in the same stage arrangement as in Zurich: the cellist in the rear, on the left-hand side, the violist next to him on the rear-right, both violins having “front seats”. The artists were sitting fairly close, thanks to their use of tablet computers. However, I would not call it a semi-circular arrangement. Rather, the three men seemed to perform towards the first violinist, Mary Ellen Woodside, who clearly was leading the performance.

I. Adagio non troppo – Allegro non tardante

Compared to the performance a week earlier, the biggest difference to that concert was in the acoustics. Contrary to the Kirche St.Peter, this venue offers clear acoustics—dry, but with excellent support for the sound of chamber music ensembles. The advantages were apparent immediately: the ppp retained full clarity and detail, the sound seemed more mellow, intimate and harmonious.

At the same time, the transparency was better, and one could perceive more characteristics of the individual voices. It seemed as if there was less of a (perceived) need for the individual musicians to “play up” in order to make themselves heard within the group. Yes, Mary Ellen Woodside kept the lead—but the sound of her instrument was more integrated / less dominant, and even her vibrato was much less conspicuous. The acoustics may also have helped in highlighting the warm sound of the second violin’s low strings in the second half of the movement.
★★★★½

II. Canzonetta: Allegretto

Here, the dynamic contrasts seemed more moderate than in Zurich: did the “smaller”, clearer / less reverberating acoustics allow for more intimacy in the expression? Certainly in the Coda this seemed evident: in Zurich, a pp / ppp was in danger of getting lost in the church acoustics, while here, transparency was inherent, and obtaining clarity in expression seemed effortless. The latter also applied to the più mosso section: light, the coordination in the paired semiquaver runs very good, natural, without being ultra-polished (not an unnecessary demonstration in perfection or ensemble acrobatics).
★★★★½

III. Andante espressivo

And in this slow movement again, the first violin sounded more mellow (darker?), less dominant, more natural, the vibrato more moderate, more natural than in Zurich. True, the atmosphere seemed slightly more dry. I think that this movement might have profited from a little more reverberation / acoustic support? Somehow, the melody (first violin) seemed a little less embedded in (or supported by) the accompaniment that in Zurich—but maybe that’s just my memory, or my personal perception?
★★★★

IV. Molto allegro e vivace

As the first two movements, the Molto allegro e vivace profited from the acoustics: the first violin sounded less poignant, there was more clarity and transparency, and the absence of noticeable reverberation helped the differentiation between legato melodies (primarily in the first violin) and the sequences of isolated, marked chords (or the chains of quaver triplets).

As already in Zurich, the central, 4/4 segment (L’istesso tempo) allowed listeners to enjoy the warm, full sound of the G- and D-strings on the second violin (Edouard Mätzener). I liked the moderation in vibrato, especially in the expressive recitatives. The last part seemed to accelerate strongly though it probably was mostly “expressive compression” in the turmoil prior to the pp ending! In that enthralling ending, the ensemble even seemed to double the emotional coherence: fascinating—both the performance and the composition!
★★★★½

It was amazing to realize how much the acoustics can contribute to the success of a performance!

Overall Rating: ★★★★½


Schumann: String Quartet No.2 in F major, op.41/2

Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) had been studying string quartets of Vienna Classical composers, such as Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. It wasn’t before 1842 until he seriously considered writing his own works in this genre. He did start that year, but at the same time was fighting a depression, which caused an interruption of several months. He did, however, finish three quartets within less than three weeks in summer that year. These quartets (all published as his op.41) remained Schumann’s only contribution to the genre. The String Quartet No.2 in F minor, op.41/2 (dedicated to Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy) features the following four movements:

  1. Allegro vivace
  2. Andante quasi Variazioni — Molto più lento — Un poco più vivace — Tempo I — Coda: Un poco più lento
  3. Scherzo: Presto — Trio: L’istesso tempo
  4. Finale: Allegro molto vivace — Più mosso

The Performance

Compared to the Merel Quartet, the Castalian String Quartet used a more open arrangement, with slightly bigger distances. With the exception of the violist, Charlotte Bonneton, they performed from conventional sheet music. Here, the musicians used the traditional order, with the two violins at the left, the cellist at the right edge. There was a lot of visual interaction / contact during the performance. Of course, also here, the first violinist, Sini Simonen, was clearly leading the ensemble.

I. Allegro vivace

With their mellow articulation, the warm sonority, the Castalian String Quartet seemed to fit very well to the sound of the Merel Quartet—excellent conditions for their cooperation in the second half of the concert! Yet, the Schumann quartet seemed to place us in a rather different world.

Technically, that composition isn’t necessarily more difficult than Mendelssohn’s quartet. However, the latter is often dominated by motoric components, which help keeping up the flow. Schumann’s opening movement may have (almost) continuous quaver figures—yet, at least in this performance, there seemed to be ruptures in the flow, sudden mood and tempo alterations. Part of this (likely) is in the composition—but primarily, I think this indicated how difficult it is to achieve and maintain coherence in this music.

It took me a while to adapt to the often strong agogics in the Castalian String Quartet’s performance. In the end, the interpretation didn’t feel entirely compelling, at least not throughout, even though the ensemble is technically excellent, coordination and intonation are not a problem at all. That may just as well have been my personal problem with switching gears from Mendelssohn to Schumann?
★★★½

II. Andante quasi Variazioni — Molto più lento — Un poco più vivace — Tempo I — Coda: Un poco più lento

I loved the clear, full and straight (non-nasal) sound of the viola in its short solo figures. Compared to that, both the second violin and the cello often sounded slightly “covered”, matte: in terms of matching each other’s sonority / sound quality, the Castalians didn’t reach the level of the Merel quartet. However, the quality of the instruments must have contributed to this—plus, this shows that it may take a long time for a quartet to “grow together” in all aspects of performance.

Also to my taste the vibrato often was a little too nervous. And I noted a slight tendency towards Nachdrücken. This may also be my personal sensibility, though. However, I also needed to remind myself that this composition is anything but easy on the musicians (and on the listener!).
★★★

III. Scherzo: Presto — Trio: L’istesso tempo

A challenging tempo, virtuosic, good coordination. Sadly, at this pace, it seemed impossible to articulate the occasional sequences of staccato quavers: one could barely “read” the pitch, there sometimes was more scratching noise than tone. The same holds true for the semiquaver staccato figures in the Trio: was the tempo too ambitious? Sure, for a good performance, the musicians should take risks—but that bears the danger of (partial) failure…

A final point: the portamento in the first violin was sometimes bordering on “too much” (to me, at least).
★★★

IV. Finale: Allegro molto vivace — Più mosso

The tempo here seemed right, logical—however, it again was very ambitious (too ambitious?), as it was no longer possible to maintain sonority and clear articulation in the semiquaver figures. Still: hats off for the ensemble’s audacity in the tempo selection, for their willingness to challenge themselves with a piece that I rate one of the most challenging in the late classical and romantic repertoire!
★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★


Mendelssohn: String Octet in E♭ major, op.20

At age 16 (1825), Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847) wrote his famous String Octet in E♭ major, op.20. It’s the work of a genius, and it’s for good reason that this composition has become and remained one of Mendelssohn’s most popular works. In this composition, Mendelssohn exhibits his very typical, personal idiom: enthralling, with verve and momentum, dominated by motoric movement. Mendelssohn explicitly wanted the work to be played “in orchestral style” (rather than as a piece for eight individual players), with strong dynamic contrasts. The Octet features four movements:

  1. Allegro moderato ma con fuoco (4/4)
  2. Andante (6/8)
  3. Scherzo: Allegro leggierissimo (2/4)
  4. Presto (2/2)

The Performance

In Mendelssohn’s String Octet, there is really not much of a question on how to arrange the musicians. Anything but the order of the score (violins I – IV, viola I & II, cello I & II) would be detrimental to the listener’s impression (e.g., in those “waves of motifs” from the violins down to the cellos and back again). Within this arrangement, naturally, the Merel Quartet took the primary positions, i.e., violins I & II, viola I, and cello I.

It soon became clear that Mary Ellen Woodside was profiting from her experience at the first desk of the second violins in Zurich’s Tonhalle Orchestra: throughout the performance, she was a excellent leader and coordinator. The sound of her instrument often seemed to dominate the performance. However, that is how Mendelssohn wrote / conceived the music: a performance of the octet is hardly imaginable without a strong, firm leader at the first desk.

I. Allegro moderato ma con fuoco

The two quartets obviously had established an excellent cooperation: the performance left very little to wish for in terms of coordination and coherence. Mendelssohn’s score is of course highly motoric, the music enthralling almost throughout. In the pp section around bar 72 I noted a very slight drop in tension (lack of suspense?)—but that was only momentary, as the drive returned with the semiquaver motifs around bar 88. The performance wasn’t just motoric—it also was fascinating to observe the lively interaction between the musicians.

How well did the two ensembles mold together? Very well, I think! Was there space for improvement, technically speaking? Hardly—maybe that the almost constant tremolos in the middle voices weren’t always coherent to the same degree—but that’s a minor quibble / nuances only. The more coherent these tremolos are, the more electrifying the music becomes.

The exposition was of course repeated, and the ensemble maintained the tension throughout the development part, maintaining tension and expectation also in the mysterious p segment (bars 160ff), up to the beginning of the recap section, where Mendelssohn’s restless motorics return, building up to a veritable, virtuosic semiquaver storm. The composition clearly is the stroke of a genius!
★★★★

II. Andante

A very atmospheric performance that retained the intensity even in the soft segments, down to the very subtle playing & dynamics in the pp. I liked the controlled vibrato, often absent entirely, and in expressive, melodic segments it was rarely reaching levels where it might have started affecting the intonation. The ensemble fared really well even in the challenging section at bars 68ff, with the semiquaver triplets, where the violins complement the on-the-beat pizzicato in the cello.
★★★½

III. Scherzo: Allegro leggierissimo

The pace in this movement was very fast, but the articulation remained good in general, the tension persisted even in the softest ppp. The tempo wasn’t without challenges, though: articulation / sonority and pitch weren’t always clear in some of the fast semiquaver and demisemiquavers figures (this reminded me of similar instances in the Schumann performance prior to the intermission).
★★★½

IV. Presto

Here, it’s the second cello which sets the initial pace—and that was very fast, to the point where intonation and articulation in the fast quaver figures wasn’t always clear: I had flashbacks both to passages in the Schumann, as well as to the final movement in Beethoven’s op.59/3 in the previous concert by the Merel Quartet. Quite obviously, drive and expression took precedence over clarity in the smallest notes. I liked the percussive playing, though, and the relentless push forward, particularly in the unisono sections, such as in bars 32ff, or of course towards the enthralling ending—full of emphasis, drive / momentum and boiling emotions. Such music cannot fail with the audience—the applause was frenetic!
★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★½


Encore — Mendelssohn: Incidental Music to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, op.61, MWV M 13 — 1. Scherzo

The artists did an encore. How can one possibly follow up on the final octet movement? Well, with more Mendelssohn, of course, and more of the virtuosic artistry: the first movement, Scherzo, from the Incidental Music to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, op.61, MWV M 13, a well-known virtuosic showpiece.

Not unexpectedly, it was a little too fast, too challenging here, to the point where the coordination was occasionally suffering. It’s impossible to beat the already pushed Presto movement in the Octet! However, a slow movement wasn’t really an option, and how could one criticize the virtuosic fun in this last dance with its ghastly running, fast motives? This encore released the audience in a truly elated mood!


The CD to the Concert

I’m giving the CD information below for reference. So far, I have not listened to or reviewed the recordings on that CD:

Mendelssohn: String Octet op.20 & String Quartet op.12 — Merel & Castalian String Quartets: CD cover

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy: String Quartet No.1 in E♭ major, op.12;  String Octet in E♭ major, op.20

Merel Quartet
Castalian String Quartet (Octet)

Sony Music / Solo Musica SM 293 (CD, stereo, ℗ / © 2019)

Mendelssohn: String Octet op.20 & String Quartet op.12 — Merel & Castalian String Quartets: CD, EAN-13 barcode
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