Merel Quartet
Mendelssohn Bartholdy / Beethoven

Kirche St.Peter, Zurich, 2019-09-22

4-star rating

2019-09-27 — Original posting



Outline


Introduction

The new concert season has started, and this was the first of the 2019/2020 series String Quartet recitals at the Kirche (Church) St.Peter in Zurich, organized by Hochuli Konzert AG. Since October 2017, this concert with the Merel Quartet is the ninth string quartet recital that I attended in this series and this venue. As in the past seasons, this string quartet recital was very well-attended.

The Artists

The Merel Quartet was founded in 2002 and is based in Zurich. It consists of the following four musicians listed below. All members of the ensemble have won prizes at international competitions, and they also have attended master classes with highly prominent instrumentalists. For full detail see the ensemble’s Website.

Mary Ellen Woodside

The ensemble’s Website describes the violinist Mary Ellen Woodside is an avid chamber musician, whose activities spread all over Western Europe. She is guest concertmaster in the Camerata Zürich, the Basel Chamber Orchestra, and the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, and for many years, she was leading the second violins in the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich. She received her musical education at the Eastman School of Music, with Charles Castleman.

Edouard Mätzener

The second violinist is Edouard Mätzener, Swiss-French, born 1989 in Zurich, studied with Tibor Varga since he was 10. In 2004, he started studying with Josef Rissin (Bachelor degrees with distinction both in pedagogic and performance) at the University of Music Karlsruhe. and in 2014, he received a Master of Performance degree from Yale University (Hyo Kang). He completed his studies at the Musikhochschule Basel with a Master of Spezialized Performance, as a student of Prof. Barbara Doll.

Alessandro D’Amico

The violist of the ensemble is Alessandro D’Amico, born 1986 in Caracas. From 2002 to 2009 he was a member of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. Also in 2002, he started studying with Gerard Caussè and Rainer Schmidt at the Escuela Superior de Musica Reina Sofia in Madrid, with Peter Langgartner at the Mozarteum in Salzburg.

Rafael Rosenfeld

The cellist Rafael Rosenfeld studied with Walter Grimmer in Zurich, later with David Geringas in Lübeck. In December 2000 he won the first prize at the Geneva International Music Competition. He now is solo cellist in the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich on a part-time basis—while also sharing his time between solo performances, as well as chamber music. Since 2005, Rafael Rosenfeld is teaching cello at the Hochschule für Musik in Basel.


Program

The string quartet recitals at Zurich’s Kirche St.Peter are scheduled in the afternoon (5 p.m.) and typically don’t feature an intermission. This time, the program consisted of just two compositions (followed by an encore, though):

Setting, etc.

As mentioned, the nave of the church was fairly full. I had the enormous privilege of being allowed to attend the concert from the (rear) organ balcony, so I could take photos. For general audience, the balcony was closed, as the organ is still undergoing a thorough revision / restoration.


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

An interesting fact right with the first encounter! While photos and videos at the ensemble’s Website show the standard setup with violin 1 — violin 2 — viola — cello, in this recital, the cellist, Rafael Rosenfeld, was performing next to the first violin (Mary Ellen Woodside), followed to the right by Alessandro D’Amico at the viola, and the second violin (Edouard Mätzener) performed at the far right. That’s fairly unusual, and I worried about the projection of the second violin (which seemed to project away from the audience, into the choir). On the other hand, the viols could certainly only profit from this arrangement, and the violins on either side / cello in the rear should result in a very balanced soundscape. Time (or rather: the performance) would tell…

All members of the ensemble performed using tablet computer. This allowed for free visual contact between the musicians, and for a much closer arrangement than with sheet music on stands. And there was no distraction from turning pages!

I. Adagio non troppo – Allegro non tardante

Already the first tones in the solemn, calm opening turned out to be characteristic for this ensemble’s playing. I noted the gentle, careful articulation, equally careful dynamics. The music entirely seemed to rest in itself. It was a performance in patience, with time for fermatas in long rests. Certainly in the introduction, not only the articulation was gentle, mellow, but also the staccato, and the transitions between the tones. The latter felt a little too mellow, too conspicuous for my taste (in the case of the first violin I would call it portamento). And also the vibrato, especially in the first violin, (to me) was bordering on “too poignant”. Otherwise: a harmonious, well-rounded, warm soundscape with gently swaying dynamics and agogics.

The above also applied to the Allegro non tardante. Of course, this was more moving forward (as requested by the composer), but still, the playing featured harmonious, gently swaying dynamics and phrasing. The articulation never turned aggressive. I was pleased to note the absence of any Nachdrücken. There were frequent “belly notes”. However, Mendelssohn explicitly asked for these in his detailed dynamic annotation.

The above fear about the second violin projecting away from the audience, into the choir, and hence possibly sounding underpowered turned out not to be substantial: quite to the contrary! The instrument projected well, especially also on the G and D-strings. Overall, the ensemble appeared well-balanced. If the first violin sometimes dominated, that was largely due to Mendelssohn’s score (and possible amplified by the occasional excess in vibrato).

II. Canzonetta: Allegretto

The theme in this movement may sound like a serenade with mandolin accompaniment, with its staccato accompaniment. Here, however, the articulation remained mellow, rather a (somewhat terse) portato than a sharp staccato. Again: excellent balance, harmonious sonority.

Also in the più mosso segment with its semiquaver runs, the artists took the staccato dots as non-legato: a light and intimate, transparent, ghastly whispering pp, in the end, the last bars seemed to retract into ppp / around the corner—and vanish. Very atmospheric, indeed!

III. Andante espressivo

A “Song without words” of sorts—wonderfully singing, an expressive recitative, telling a story, a tale that goes through moods, emotions, from serene to dramatic. It made me feel like in the opera!

IV. Molto allegro e vivace

The last movement follows attacca, opening with two ff beats. The ensemble left a little gap after the gentle, silent ending of the preceding movement. The powerful opening did not feel like a shock, just as a “strong statement”. Thereafter: a very virtuosic and highly dramatic and expressive movement, with all the quaver movements running through the voices. The playing was not only virtuosic, but also very coherent, with excellent coordination, building up to a veritable, dramatic thunderstorm. Yet, it avoided all harshness in the articulation. True, the first violin dominated. However, the score gives it the role of a prima donna. So, nothing to complain about.

In the intermittent L’istesso tempo section, the second violin temporarily is the melody voice. It felt like a contrasting (male?) character, not just because it uses the low strings only, but also in the (deliberately) reduced vibrato. And again, I noted the warm, dark sonority of that instrument. Drama builds up again, not only in articulation and dynamics, but also through momentary acceleration. An expressive, short cadenza in the first violin offers a short moment of reflection. And it seemed to moderate the temperament towards the calm closure.

One minor quibble: in the reverberating church acoustics, I occasionally would have preferred a slightly lighter articulation, in order to improve the transparency and clarity. But I know that with the often ebullient temperament in Mendelssohn’s music, that’s hardly doable!

Overall Rating: ★★★★


Beethoven: String Quartet No.9 in C major, op.59/3, “Razumovsky III”

In 1808, prince Andrey Razumovsky (1752 – 1836), then the Russian ambassador to Vienna, commissioned three string quartets from Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827). The composer complied, creating the three quartets op.59, now known as “Razumovsky Quartets”. These string quartets (the “core” of Beethoven’s “middle period”) are distinctly bigger, more expressive, and more complex than Beethoven’s early series, the 6 quartets op.18. Among the “Razumovsky Quartets”, the String Quartet No.9 in C major, op.59/3, “Razumovsky III” features the following movements:

  1. Andante con moto – Allegro vivace
  2. Andante con moto quasi allegretto
  3. Menuetto: Grazioso
  4. Allegro molto

Rather than giving a detailed description, I refer to my earlier posting with a detailed description, and with a comparison of several recordings of this work.

The Performance

I. Andante con moto – Allegro vivace

Excellent, this bleak introduction with minimal (or hinted at best) vibrato! That’s a logical choice, though, as empty strings don’t mix well with simultaneous vibrating in other voices.

Of course, the atmosphere changes completely with the Allegro vivace part. Here now, the staccato (initially in the first violin only) was lighter, more poignant than in the Mendelssohn quartet. I noted the excellent intonation, the clarity up to the highest pitches / positions on the violins (intonation mishaps were very rare in general). That’s a critical aspect in this movement, and it was all the more challenging, as the long, resting notes often were devoid of audible vibrato, which only highlights the slightest intonation issues.

In this movement (and in general, actually), I would characterize the performance by the Merel Quartet as harmonious, clear, but not ultra-polished to perfection, hence never sterile, but expressive throughout. Accents were clear, but never exceedingly forceful, devoid of excessive violence.

It was also remarkable how well the four voices blended into each other, as the semiquaver motifs were passed between instruments. A, excellent performance in all aspects! And of course, the artists observed the repeat signs—thanks!
★★★★½

II. Andante con moto quasi allegretto

A very good tempo: not just Andante, but observing the con moto (with movement) and quasi Allegretto aspects. The pace might seem relatively fluent compared to other interpretations. However, the musicians still kept the calm throughout the movement, and throughout agogics: nothing was ever hasted / pushing, nor was there any dragging, or loss of tension. A coherent and compelling performance!

From the beginning, I noted the careful dynamics (the pp in bar 119 was taken to the extreme, down to ppp!), full and warm sonority in the cello pizzicato. The movement also allowed the violist to expose the excellent sonority of his instrument. It is mellow, not nearly as nasal as many (typical?) violas, but still with its distinct character. I also found the vibrato more natural here (better than in the Mendelssohn quartet).

Also here, the intonation was excellent. Only in the slightly obscured moment in the coda, around bar 190, the intonation in the two violins is extremely critical and challenging. And momentarily, it seemed to suffer. Was this a consequence of the distance between the two violins in this arrangement?
★★★★

III. Menuetto: Grazioso

Yes, grazioso—but not devoid of emphasis! Excellent coordination, the transitions of the semiquaver motifs between the voices could hardly be more seamless! The sound/sonority was excellent in general. My only quibble here: a characteristic of this movement is that the first violin often plays in highest positions, far above the other voices. That is where I sometimes found it rather (too) poignant, a little too acute. I guess that that’s the drawback of using steel strings?

One other thing I noted, without wanting to rate it: between the second instance of the Menuetto and the Coda, the ensemble inserted a deliberate, short pause before the cello sets in. That may be helpful in clarifying the structure to the listener. However, I don’t see a compelling need for this pause from the score. On the other hand, that Coda also serves as transition to the last movement (implicit attacca after a fermata), and the atmosphere changes from the Menuetto, which may justify setting these 18 bars apart.
★★★★

IV. Allegro molto

A movement that is famous not just because it is highly enthralling, but also for its virtuosic challenges. It’s a true, polyphonic showpiece! I suspect that the violist was a little (too) ambitious in setting the (initial tempo)! Yes, the playing was highly virtuosic, but at that pace, intonation (especially in secondary notes) started to suffer, as did the sonority. Also articulation and coordination weren’t quite as good as earlier in the concert, particularly in the reverberating acoustics of this church. However: the movement remained full of verve and momentum, full of “bite”, building up to a veritable, furious lightning storm! And the audience responded with fanatic, almost frenetic applause!
★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★★


Encore — Piazzolla: La Muerte del Ángel (1962)

In the encore, the tone, the atmosphere changed completely! Astor Piazzolla (1921 – 1992) “invented” the “nuevo tango”, and the Tango became his signature style. Among the many tangos that he wrote, there’s the 1962 “La Muerte del Ángel”, originally of course written for the bandoneon (with accompaniment). As many of Piazzolla’s Tangos, it was transcribed for various instrumental settings.

A piece that starts slightly melancholic, then soon turns jazzy, gains rhythm and momentum. Enthralling music, short, but full of “bite”, and not devoid of “rough edges”: fascinating! As Alessandro D’Amico told me after the concert, they “wanted to add a bit of spice” at the end of their performance. Thanks: much appreciated, and fun, for sure!



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