Moser String Quartet
Franz Joseph Haydn / Dieter Ammann / Béla Bartók

Wasserkirche, Zurich, 2022-12-18

4.5-star rating

2022-12-23 — Original posting


Moser String Quartet (© Daniel Miguel Art)
Moser String Quartet (© Daniel Miguel Art)

Table of Contents


Introduction

Venue, Date & TimeWasserkirche, Zurich, 2022-12-18 17:00h
Program TitleDistanzenkonzert (Distance Concert)
OrganizerMoser String Quartet
Reviews from related events2022-05-26: Concert featuring the Moser String Quartet
Reviews from concerts at Zurich’s Wasserkirche

The Artists

This is my second encounter with the Moser String Quartet. It consists of students of the Academy of Music FHNW (Fachhochschule Nordwestschweiz / University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland), in Basel. The first encounter was in a performance together with the Basel Sinfonietta on 2022-05-26. It was an orchestral concert celebrating the 60th birthday of Dieter Ammann (*1962, see also Wikipedia, or the musinfo.ch Website). In a “pre-concert” with two chamber music formations, the Moser String Quartet performed Dieter Ammann’s String Quartet No.2, “Distanzenquartett. This work now formed the center of their program in Zurich.

Biography

The four musicians in the Moser String Quartet are

For details on the individual biographies please see the ensemble’s biography page. The ensemble emerged two years ago, in October 2020, “from love and interest in chamber music, and a strong feeling for playing together and bringing this to everyone”. See again the ensemble’s biography page. The quartet has been receiving lessons with prominent musicians, such as Rainer Schmidt (*1964, member of the Hagen Quartet), Silvia Simionescu (member of the Gringolts Quartet), pianist Anton Kernjak and violinist Anna Gebert (*1979).

Starting a Career

At the FHNW, the quartet has attended masterclasses with numerous artists such as violinist Anthony Marwood (*1965), cellist Steven Isserlis (*1958), and the violinist and chamber music pedagogue Eberhard Feltz (*1937). The ensemble gave its debut concert in January 2021 at the Musik-Akademie Basel. A mere year after its inception, the quartet already collected awards. At the 2021 Gran Premi Musical Lauredià (Sant Julià de Lòria, Andorra) it won the 1st Proze, at the 2021 Orpheus Chamber Music Competition (Switzerland) the 2nd Prize. They were finalists in the 9th Antón García Abril International Chamber Music Competition (Baza, Granada, Spain, 2021). With these prizes “in their pocket”, they have now already received invitations to festivals in Italy and Switzerland.

The Quartet wanted to name themselves with something particular to Basel. It is this city which has brought the members together. They selected “Moser“, as they spend most of their time rehearsing together in the Moser-Haus at the Musik-Akademie Basel. The house is named after the Swiss composer Rudolf Moser (1892 – 1960).

Moser String Quartet (© Daniel Miguel Art)
Moser String Quartet (© Daniel Miguel Art)

Instruments

This information is straight from the ensemble’s Website:


Program

As mentioned above, at the central position in the program, the quartet performed a composition by Dieter Ammann:

The Ensemble’s Explanation to the Program

The concert handout contained the above work titles, along with the associated movement structure. In addition, the ensemble included a paragraph (in German) with the title “What is Distance?“. This explained the title of the concert, “Distance Concert”. With the ensemble’s permission, I’m including that text here (translated with the help of the free version of Deepl). I modified the automatic translation for better readability in English:

The word “distance”, after which the second piece of the program (Distance Quartet) is named, is often associated with separation and lack of communication. In this program we propose a different point-of-view: distance is not only something that separates—it also connects. It links two points together, it lies in-between. The distance between Haydn and Bartok is not what separates them, but what bridges them. In other words: the years that have passed between the two composers, the history that connects them, and the influence of one onto the other. Bartók’s music could not have existed without Haydn and all the music that was influenced by him.


The Venue

The venue for this concert was Zurich’s Wasserkirche. This is one of Zurich’s oldest churches (going back to the 10th century), just beneath Zurich’s main church, the Großmünster. The location originally was a rocky island in the river Limmat. The eastern arm of the river was later closed in favor of a street. The island allegedly was the place where two of Zurich’s main Saints (Felix and Regula) were executed. Today’s late Gothic building dates from 1486. After the Reformation, the Gothic church was secularized and subsequently used as library, later also to store crops. Only since a restoration in 1940, it is now used for church services again.


Unlucky Circumstances?!

I assume that it was my review from the concert in Basel on 2022-05-26 that motivated the Moser String Quartet to invite me to this event. Given their earlier performance, I happily accepted the invitation. As the event approached, I did have some concerns, though:

  • the ensemble must be known in the Basel area, where they have their friends and supporters. In Zurich, they are not a “known name” just yet.
  • Chamber music events in general often have problems attracting substantial audiences, unless they are part of an established concert series. I realized that the ensemble was organizing this even on their own. There was very little advertising, other than through social media.
  • To make matters worse, the quartet temporarily lost its Website in the weeks prior to the event. Luckily, it is now back up again.
  • The concert happened on the last Sunday before Christmas, at a time where everybody was busy with Xmas shopping. Availability of the venue may have dictated time and date.
  • Many of those who were not shopping were watching the final match in the 2022 football world championship.
  • The cold weather did not motivate people to leave their apartment.
  • The Haydn quartet certainly is a safe choice—but sadly, older / conservative listeners may have been scared off by the Bartók quartet, let alone the composition by Dieter Ammann.

Unfortunately, all of the above appeared to work against the artists. I felt sorry for the artists (though I wasn’t entirely surprised) when I realized that there were just about 10 people in the audience.

Setting

For reasons of acoustics, the artists placed their stands some 2 – 3 meters from the first seat row. This had the benefit of being closer to the tiny audience. For a “balanced view / impression”, I sat in row #3, on the right-hand side, with unobstructed view onto the quartet.


Concert & Review

Franz Joseph Haydn
Franz Joseph Haydn

Haydn: String Quartet in D minor, op.76/2, “Fifths”

Composer & Work

For most of his life as a composer, Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809) wrote string quartets in groups of six works (opp.1, 2, 3, 9, 17, 20, 33, 50, 54/55, 64, 71/74, and 76). The six quartets op.76 from 1796/1797 are his last series. The only quartets outside of such series are op.42, op.51 (The Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross), the two quartets op.77, and the quartet (No.68) op.103. Haydn dedicated the six quartets op.76 to the Hungarian count Joseph Georg von Erdödy (1754 – 1824). Hence their surname “Erdödy Quartets”.

The String Quartet in D minor, op.76/2, “Fifths” (Hob.III:76) has its surname from the falling fifths in the exposition of the first movement. The four movements are

  1. Allegro
  2. Andante o più tosto allegretto
  3. Menuetto: Allegro ma non troppo
  4. Vivace assai

The Ensemble’s Appearance

The two violinists (Kanon Miyashita and Patricia Muro) at the left, and the violist (Ariadna Bataller) at the rear right were performing standing. All artists were playing from tablets. The benefit: artists and instruments did not hide behind the stands, the contact with the audience was more direct.

Some people may call this superficialities—I still think that an ensemble’s appearance is important. The artists had to “digest” the many empty seats in the nave. Nevertheless, once they walked through the nave towards the stands, and throughout the concert, their appearance (movements, behavior, gestures / facial mimics) was absolutely professional. As was their dress style. It did not seem to make a difference that there were so few people (though Lea Galasso opened with a few words, mentioning that this “looks like a private concert”). They acted as if the nave was full. No casualties, no gawky bowing, but well-coordinated, elegant movements—and (needless to say) a professional performance throughout the evening.

Verbal announcements may have been a bit soft (mostly in English, some in German), but they were friendly, clear enough, well structured / prepared, and to the point.

Moser String Quartet (© Mousai Clio, Basel)
Moser String Quartet (© Mousai Clio, Basel)

The Performance

As the artists told me after the concert, they had originally planned to perform at the far end of the choir. However, that proved acoustically unfavorable. So, the ensemble obviously tested the acoustics. Prior to the event, though, with an unknown audience size, it was not possible to predict the “final” acoustics of the venue.

In fact, the several seconds of strong reverberation during the f beginning of the first movement came (almost) as a surprise. It seemed that also the artists were (somewhat) taken by surprise. However, their reaction was instantaneous: after the first 4-bar phrase, they perfectly (instinctively or consciously) adjusted their volume and articulation. From then on, the reverberation was of course still present—but nothing that I was concerned (let alone worry) about. Rather, it seemed to have become a natural, integral part of the performance (of course, to a degree, also the listener’s ear adjusts to the acoustics).

To me, already that on-the-spot adjustment was astounding. There are many seasoned ensembles that lack this ability. Or, they are too lazy to adjust to the “acoustics of the day”. Throughout the concert, I often felt that I could watch how the artists were not just listening to each other, but also to the acoustic response of the venue.

I. Allegro

Once the ensemble and my ear had adjusted to the venue, I sensed a harmonious performance. Clear (but not exceedingly or demonstratively poignant / “sharp”) articulation, excellent phrasing, a flourishing tone, warm, characterful and beautiful sonority. No excessively polished perfection, but a natural tone—and I was so happy with the virtual absence of vibrato! The ensemble sound was such that the instruments retained their individual characteristics, even though the sonorities seemed perfectly attuned.

I loved the clarity in the crescendo forks with the tied quavers in bars #27 and #30/31. Very noticeable, fun, and far from sounding like Nachdrücken or “failed syncopes”. My own adaptation to the acoustics may have contributed to the impression that the repeat of the exposition was even more concise / coherent than the first pass. And I also liked the structural clarity, e.g., in the (slightly) extended fermata prior to the recap section (bar #98).

Clearly, Kanon Miyashita at the first violin and usually the lead voice was “in control”—though without dominating excessively. It may be in the nature of the pieces in the program, but I sensed that the second in the hierarchy was Lea Galasso at the cello, at the other end. However, it is pointless to discuss quartet hierarchy, as long as a performance is as unanimous as this one.

II. Andante o più tosto allegretto

The “slow” movement exposed the warm sonority of Kanon Miyashita’s violin, and the ever so slightly grainy character on the g and d’ strings. Beautiful playing, not just in the cantilena, but at least as much in the marvelously swaying agogics, combined with the “speaking” dynamics. The musicians were obviously listening / taking into account the acoustic response—and the intonation was excellent throughout. And yes: both repeats in the theme were observed, doubling the listener’s pleasure!

Also in the variations I enjoyed the clarity in the dynamics, the unfettered sforzandi and ff bursts. And the first violin’s swaying, ornamented transitions. The first part of the second variation (D major) turned into really intimate chamber music. It was perfect in balance and attention to dynamics. In its long demisemiquaver line, the first violin flourished in every phrase: pure pleasure! Not limited to the first violin, of course: prior to the cadenza (bar #57), the cello (Lea Galasso) is given a (short) lead role. And in the coda, the main accompaniment is a demisemiquaver line on the viola (Ariadna Bataller).

III. Menuetto: Allegro ma non troppo

Not a comfy menuet, but a moody, swift, but slightly rough peasant dance (“more Allegro than non troppo“), though of course not a Scherzo either. Excellent choice of character and tempo!

And the Trio!! True fun, folksy—but not clumsy: subtle, even gentle in the p segments, very direct, almost explosive in the ff bursts, even more so in the repeats, where (in bar #73) the ff even appeared reinforced with a little ritenuto. Typical Haydn fun and joy at their best! The Trio was an example, but by far not the only instance where Kanon Miyashita avoided dominating the ensemble—even in moments where her voice was very exposed. In the second part, where she enters on a”, high above the other voices (second violin on e’), she took her volume back to pp, almost hiding among the other voices: collegiality, so refreshing!

An excellent idea: in the da capo instance of the Menuetto (without repeats), the second part gradually retracted to a soft p ending, as if the actors went off-stage!

IV. Vivace assai

A typical Haydn Finale-joke: the first violin’s lonely e”’ at the end of the first part! Kanon Miyashita avoided the caricature effect, rather caught the listener’s attention by playing this pp—short, very soft, very clean, almost whistled, and almost hiding in the reverberation! After the second repeat segment, Haydn finally does justice to the second violin, which repeats the theme from the first violin, but now on the g and d’ strings—before inevitably the first violin takes over again…

I liked the clarity and determination in tempo / architecture / phrasing. Remarkable: the slower, heavy, emphatic continuation after the fermatas in bars #63 and #223! The basic tempo was virtuosic, but not stressed, maintained consistently throughout the movement (apart from agogics, fermatas, etc., of course). The musette tone after the modulation to D major felt lovely, intimate (pp in the accompaniment)—playful, like the entire movement. Rightly so! For once, Haydn’s humor in the Finale is not crude, but subtle—a smile, not laughter!

Rating: ★★★★½

In fall 2022, the ensemble has recorded a performance of Haydn’s op.76/2. That recording is now available on Youtube. That recording is not really comparable to the concert performance, given the differences in acoustics.

With other artists, I have also reviewed an earlier concert performance of Haydn’s op.76/2 (2019-03-17).


Dieter Ammann (© Ingo Hoehn)
Dieter Ammann

Ammann: String Quartet No.2, “Distanzenquartett” (2009)

Composer & Work

In the String Quartet No.2, “Distanzenquartett (Distance Quartet, 2009), as the title suggests, Dieter Ammann was concerned with bridging distances that arise in the clash of different register positions and volume ranges. Instead or reinventing the wheel, let me just quote from my description from my review on the ensemble’s performance in May:

These “are conveyed through the antitheses of harmonically organized sound and complex noise textures. Or, they play out in the tonally precisely crafted juxtaposition of energetic-moving passages and quiet zones. The work finds its most exciting moments, however, where Ammann handles the quartet ensemble like a single large instrument with 16 strings, while contrasting this collective sound with moments of isolation.” (Adapted from a text by Stefan Drees, via Kammermusik Basel). On his own Website (freely translated, with the help of Deepl), the composer writes:

At the beginning, clearly separated elements are exposed, with a maximum distance between them: noises, quarter-tone glissandi, and rhythmic, strongly percussive figures. There is a juxtaposition of

  • passages in which exclusively certain intervals are used,
  • full chromaticism,
  • lead tone harmonics,
  • echoes of “spectralism”, i.e., music from overtone series.

A Repeat Performance

With contemporary works in concert, I typically don’t have a score, nor usually any other performance I can compare to. There may sometimes be YouTube videos, perhaps recordings that can be streamed. However, comparing those to a concert performance would be unfair. So, I typically don’t rate / judge a performance as such. Rather, I resort to describing my impressions, i.e., “how a composition / performance works on me”, i.e., my imagination, my associations, pictures and scenes that the music evokes.

My main goal and hope with this is, to motivate people who are not familiar with such music, to explore ways of listening, of letting imagination, fantasy and association “do its work”. And maybe, to avoid prejudice, preconceived ideas about unknown music.

In the case of Dieter Ammann’s “Distanzenquartett”, I have one single “point of reference”—the Moser String Quartet’s own performance in the concert of 2022-05-26, almost 7 months ago (OK, it is also available on YouTube, see below). With the review from that concert, I have done the descriptive part already—there is not point in repeating this. Rather, let me focus on new and complementary impressions and insights:

Moser String Quartet (© Mousai Clio, Basel)
Moser String Quartet (© Mousai Clio, Basel)

Specifics About the Performance in This Concert

Needless to say: Dieter Ammann’s composition is a “different pair of shoes”! And the artists switched to alternate (more robust? carbon?) bows. That certainly has to do with the fact that Dieter Ammann “instrumentalizes” the bow and the instrument itself in many ways, beyond traditional bow techniques, as Patricia Muro explained in her introduction. Such techniques include playing (bow and pizzicato) above the bridge, col legno (the bow stick directly on the strings), tapping on the body of the instrument, tapping the fingerboard with the bow screw, pressing the bow onto the strings for a deliberately ugly, scratching noise, and more. And, of course, there are the “true distances”, i.e., the combination of extremes in volume, as well as in pitch.

Compared to the May performance, the closeness to the performers, the smaller venue, the difference in acoustics turned the focus from the “sound architecture” of the composition towards sonorities, (dis-)harmonies, coordination and interaction between the musicians. This concert offered much more of an “inside view” into the performance and its details.

Impressions

It felt as if the church acoustics multiplied the effect of the opening bursts—the strong opening pizzicati, the equally violent, sonoric clusters. The latter sounded like a group of moaning people (falling glissandi). At the same time, the sound of the instruments mixed up to the rich resonances of a set of church bells. Interestingly, as narrow, intense and dense as the clusters may have been—it took only moments for me to lose the notion of “dissonance”! The clusters got disrupted by ripped pizzicati and rhythmic percussion noises (col legno and knocking on instrument bodies), building up to a kind of fight, ending abruptly.

High drone tones above waves of percussion noise, cello pizzicato. Loud sonorous eruptions, rapid motifs, alternating with loud, resting chords, some loud, some pp. Ascending harmonic series, minute motifs, eruptions into resting chords, excited discourse, ascending pitches, culminating in highest positions in the violins. To the listener, it is not just entertaining, but full of action, tension, suspense—fascinating.

For the artists, though, there is the challenge of staying coordinated / “on track” through rapid accelerandi, sudden breaks, switching between static moments and eruptive events. The ensemble not only maintained coordination through all the irregular flow, but their performance was coherent, convincing, compelling throughout, the intonation (where needed) firm and flawless.

Sonorities

The sonority / tonal purity was excellent throughout; one evidence for this was in moving, loud clusters that felt like unison—though obviously they could not be. Dieter Ammann also gave Ariadna Bataller’s opportunities to demonstrate the character- and colorful sonority of her instrument (it looked like a particularly big viola to me). Similarly, there were moments when Lea Galasso at the cello took up the lead function.

Dramatic segments alternated with ethereal sounds, sometimes also eerie sonorities (calls into a void), then again it felt as if a solemn chorale was about to begin. Contrasts (distances) in volume, character (mystery vs. cantilenas), in harmony (dissonance vs. pure intervals / chords), in character (rough vs. subtle), and in pitch (e.g., violins and viola / cello forming opposing poles).

At the climax, the music turns jazzy, syncopated (Dieter Ammann’s background in Rock music?). Then again, there are sudden eruptions (rather “bangs”), after which the flow stops, musicians and listener follow the resonances in the instruments, as they decayed into pppp. These were beautifully amplified / enriched / enhanced by the reverberation. One could sense the focus, the concentration of the four musicians, the care they applied to keep the dynamics “in check” through the extreme contrasts. These persist through the end, where the violin retracts / evades into extreme ppppp at highest (pure) pitches, above scarce, erratic percussive strokes.

I stated that I was not going to describe the music again—and I contradict myself. The proximity and the supporting acoustics caused the experience to be much more immediate, immersive, direct, and Dieter Ammann’s excellent, impressive composition retained its presence down to subtleties and details. Interestingly (maybe not surprisingly), the performance felt longer than in the first encounter…

Rating: ★★★★½

The ensemble’s performance of the “Distanzenquartett” in the concert on 2022-05-26 has been recorded and is available on Youtube.


Béla Bartók (CC: Public Domain Mark 1.0)
Béla Bartók

Bartók: String Quartet No.1 in A minor, op.7, Sz.40 / BB 52

Composer & Work

Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945) completed his String Quartet No.1 in A minor, op.7, Sz.40 / BB 52 on 1909-01-27. The Wikipedia article I’m referring to states that Bartók wrote the first movement under the influence of his unfulfilled love for the violinist Stefi Geyer (1888 – 1956).

  1. Lento
  2. Allegretto (a.k.a. Poco a poco accelerando all’allegretto) — Introduzione: Allegro
  3. Allegro vivace

Not untypical for 20th century composers, Bartók did not just specify one tempo per movement. Rather, his score is full of detailed tempo annotations, sometimes in words and metronome numbers, sometimes just the latter. For example, the third movement varies between Allegro vivace, Maestoso, and Adagio.

The Performance

Professionality also here: despite the many empty seats, the artists did not skip their introductory remarks on Bartók’s first string quartet, briefly describing the circumstances of the composition, and the character of the three movements (from sadness / disappointment in the first movement to liveliness, brighter perspective, etc.)

I. Lento

A highly expressive, mourning piece! Loneliness and despair, an intimate, emotional discourse of four equivalent voices, a lament with growing intensity. And the interpretation was excellent also here: engaged, relentless presence, never even a bit neutral, unfailing in the intonation, excellent in the dynamic / acoustic balance. In bar #33, at the a tempo, the dark, gloomy f beats in the cello (and empty fifth) felt like the somber tolling of a big bell, into which the viola was lamenting loudly, intensely (molto appassionato, rubato), with its characterful & characteristic voice & color. Soon, the second, then also the first violin joined in.

The cello gradually eases up, and in a decrescendo, viola and violins ascend into the sky. Transfiguration? In an intense cantilena, the cello seemed to ponder, reflect—and after another, short climax, the movement appears to relax, dissolve. At the fermata into bar #51, the quartet inserted a short rest, as if to catch some breath—the a tempo continuation felt logical and natural: the “internal heartbeat” did not stop. The (quarter) general rest at the end of bar #52 is Bartók’s—it appeared prolonged. Yet, the beginning of the first violin in bar #53 felt absolutely natural, “right”, followed the “breath” of the music.

The following violin duet led into an almost overwhelming build-up, finally into a ravishingly beautiful climax. The last bars retract, relax into a subtle ppp.
★★★★½

II. Poco a poco accelerando all’allegrettoIntroduzione

Just a few points / highlights from my notes: the powerful, dramatic viola exclamation in bar #71, followed by the expressive duo of the middle voices, with the outer voices forming an accompaniment. I may be wrong—but to me, the intonation was not quite as perfect as in the other movements. However, in this movement, maintaining intonation purity is highly challenging, the voices often extremely exposed and without “support” from the other instruments. I also sensed occasional instances of a very slight Nachdrücken (never really prominent, let alone obnoxious, though). On the other hand, I really enjoyed how the acoustics cooperated in carrying the movement across the prominent general rests between bar #304 and the Introduzione.

Despite the above: the interpretation as such was still excellent and showed a clear, musical conception in tempo, phrasing, dynamics. I never sensed technical issues, let alone real mishaps. Overall, the movement was maybe a tad less compelling than the other parts of the concert. However, that second movement as such is a real challenge: highly demanding, both in intonation, as well as musically.

The Introduzione itself was excellent again: a joy to observe how the ensemble appeared to “work / cooperate with” the reverberation, listening to instruments and acoustics. There are three highly expressive recitatives: a short and a long one in the cello voice, finally one in the first violin. All three were excellent, impressive, firm in the intonation—and they seemed to take into account the reverberation!
★★★★

III. Allegro vivace

The performance in the last movement was brilliant: virtuosic, agile, alert, coherent across the many changes in tempo and character, light, dancing in the fast segments: stunning, very impressive, convincing, enthralling up to the last bar—congrats!
★★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★★½

Conclusions

To summarize my view on this concert: it was an absolute privilege to have been invited, to attend and experience these performances, and I feel sorry (even devastated) about everybody who missed the opportunity to witness this ensemble. The quartet undoubtedly enjoys excellent perspectives for an international career in the highly competitive field of chamber music!

Moser String Quartet @ Wasserkirche Zürich, 2022-12-18 (© Rolf Kyburz, all rights reserved)
Wasserkirche Zürich, 2022-12-18 (© Rolf Kyburz, all rights reserved)

Acknowledgement

The author would like to express his gratitude to the ensemble for the invitation to this concert!



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