Pacific Quartet Vienna
Haydn / Kodály / Beethoven

Zimmermannhaus, Brugg, 2019-11-30

4-star rating

2019-12-07 — Original posting



Outline


Pacific Quartet Vienna @ Zimmermannhaus Brugg, 2019-11-30 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Pacific Quartet Vienna @ Zimmermannhaus Brugg, 2019-11-30 (© Rolf Kyburz)

Introduction

This was the third of the Chamber Music events in the Zimmermannhaus in Brugg—this time a concert without piano (for the previous concert on 2019-11-02 see my earlier report). The concert took place in the upper of two exhibition rooms, under the roof, and the hall with its around 100 seats was fairly full. In parallel to the concerts, the venue is also holding arts exhibitions. This time, the exhibition featured art works by the Swiss artists Oliver Krähenbühl (*1963) and Marion Ritzmann (*1978). Apart from paintings at the walls (see the picture above), the concert hall had been cleared for the event.

Setting, etc.

The organizers were kind enough to allocate the corridor seat in the last row, such that I could take photos without disturbing others (I hope!). Note that the LED lighting in the venue is somewhat of a challenge for photography, typically causing horizontal stripes, unless a long exposure time is selected (that again causes motion blurring). Some of the photos below show these stripes quite prominently (as I inadvertently mis-set the exposure time after the intermission).


The Artist(s)

This was my second encounter with the Pacific Quartet Vienna. Earlier that year, on 2019-04-12, I had attended a concert in Zurich with that ensemble (see my concert report for details). For this concert, the ensemble consisted of the following artists:

  • Yuta Takase, violin
  • Ronny Spiegel (for Eszter Major), violin
  • Chin-Ting Huang, viola
  • Sarah Weilenmann, cello

The reason for the change in staff is that the second violinist, Eszter Major, is on maternity leave. However, also her replacement, Ronny Spiegel, was a familiar name to me: I had heard him perform as a member of the Kaleidoscope String Quartet some 18 months ago, in a concert in Basel on 2018-06-10. Ronny Spiegel (*1982) is a musician covering a large spectrum of activities, from orchestra musician (concertmaster) to chamber music, from classic music to contemporary works, on to traditional music from the Balkans.


Program

In their spring concert in Zurich, the Pacific Quartet Vienna had performed two late string quartets by Beethoven (No.12 in E♭ major, op.127, and No.13 in B♭ major, op.130). This concert featured another one of Beethoven’s late string quartets (the last one, actually). Prior to the intermission, works by Haydn and Kodály complemented the program:


Concert & Review

Haydn: String Quartet in C major, op.76/3, “Emperor”

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809) is the “father” / inventor of the string quartet. He created some 68 works in this genre. The String Quartet in C major, op.76/3, “Emperor is part of the six “Erdödy Quartets”, op.76, which Haydn wrote in 1796 – 1797. It features the “classic” four movements:

  1. Allegro
  2. Poco adagio, cantabile (theme and 4 variations)
  3. Menuetto: Allegro
  4. Finale: Presto

The Performance

Yuta Takase announced the opening composition as one of the most popular of string quartets by “Papa Haydn”. He was certainly right about the popularity, even though that mainly stems from the fact that the second movement is based on a Croatian folk song which later became the anthem “Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser” (“God Save Emperor Francis”) for Emperor Francis II (1768 – 1835, Austrian Emperor from 1804 on). That same hymn later made its own career as the Deutschlandlied. However, I doubt that the connotation “Papa Haydn” is really appropriate. Haydn wasn’t so much of a complacent “papa personality”, but a real pioneer in the genres of symphony, string quartet, piano trio, piano sonata. And he wasn’t just innovative as a composer, but also full of humor and irony!

I. Allegro

A fresh look at this ensemble’s sound: simple, often almost “raw”. To my pleasure, this instantly felt like a proper, historically informed (HIP) performance, despite the modern instruments and bows. I also noted light articulation, though the staccato notes weren’t exceedingly sharp, and where Haydn omitted the staccato dots, the articulation swiftly switched to portato. Also, there was very little vibrato, especially with the first violin (often none at all), which was clearly leading, though without trying to dominate the sound. The occasional portamento felt perfectly adequate, didn’t hurt. And: considering the very limited vibrato, the intonation was excellent!

The quartet of course repeated the exposition. The second part of the movement (development & recap sections) also has repeat signs. These may well be a remainder of baroque tradition, so it is not a sacrilege to omit them, as the ensemble did. I particularly liked the folksy tone in the segment (starting in bar 68) with drones that evoked the sound of a tromba marina (Trumscheit). The recapo segment ends in fermatas that Yuta Takase complemented with a short cadenza. The subsequent coda—now played Presto or più allegro—started pp, sounding almost ghastly: excellent, fun!

II. Poco adagio, cantabile (Theme and 4 Variations)

The “Emperor theme” instantly felt emphatic: there was a more distinct vibrato, though with very limited amplitude, thus not affecting the intonation. The first variation is a duet where the second violin performs the theme, while the first violin accompanies with playful, light semiquavers. The second variation has the melody in the cello, with the first violin leading the accompaniment. Yuta Takase took the liberty of adding lots of extra (small and very fitting) ornaments: excellent!

Variations 3 and 4 featured simple, natural playing, not too artful (except maybe a slight tendency towards “belly notes”), in the end retracting into a simple, soft non-vibrato. The movement also demonstrated how well the four instruments, as well as the musicians all fitted together, offering perfect acoustic balance.

III. Menuetto: Allegro

Excellent tempo, with swaying agogics and numerous, very nice, extra ornaments in the repeats. The Trio switched to an earnest tone, but didn’t feel exceedingly tragic, nor was it too slow: an intimate discourse between the first violin and its partners—again very nicely ornamented in the repeats.

IV. Finale: Presto

The final movement often refers back to the “emperor theme”. It opened with deliberately “raw”, very terse, arpeggiated chords. The performance was not only excellent in the instrumental balance, but also clear and very transparent, even in the virtuosic segments. This is attributable both to the ensemble’s articulation, as well as to the analytic acoustics in this venue.

Overall Rating: ★★★★

To summarize my impressions from this part of the concert: compared to the recital in Zurich, the performance felt much more alert, awake and alive, on the part of every single musician: one could observe this not only through the intense facial mimics, but also in the intense visual interaction, especially among the two violinists and the cellist (Chin-Ting Huang primarily seemed to coordinate through peripheral vision). The resulting sound was transparent, light, and clean.

I was of course especially curious to see how the temporary member, Ronny Spiegel at the second violin, would fit into the team. He not only as completely integrated in terms of articulation and volume / balance, but also the sound of his instrument matched that of the first violin in an ideal way.

One minor quibble: throughout the concert, the ensemble took long rests of maybe 20 – 30 seconds between the movements, in order to pre-meditate the upcoming piece. This may help the musicians to be “fully in-line” already with the first notes. For the listener, however, these pauses may have felt somewhat disruptive, partly breaking the connection between the movements.


Kodály: String Quartet No.2, op.10

Zoltán Kodály (1882 – 1967) was one of the most prominent Hungarian composers and musicians. Through his career, he was always very interested in folk music. That’s an interest which he shared with Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945). Another one of his main fields of interest was music education, and he also was a pianist. Kodály’s compositorial oeuvre is much smaller than that of a typical classical composer. He only wrote two string quartets: the String Quartet No.2, op.10 is a work from 1916 – 1918. It features two movements:

  1. Allegro — Sostenuto
  2. Andante, quasi recit. – Andante con moto – Allegretto – Più mosso – Allegro giocoso –Tempo I

The Performance

Here and in the Beethoven quartet after the intermission, Sarah Weilenmann gave the introductory explanations.

I. Allegro — Sostenuto

From the first note, we found ourselves in a totally different soundscape! Music filled with emphasis and verve, highly expressive and dramatic. Kodály uses a fair number of themes (or rather: motifs) that are not as easy to keep track of and by far not as catchy (certainly for the first-time listener) as those of typical classical or romantic works. Lots of the music has an “Eastern touch” (from the Hungarian background, obviously). Once the listener is “in” this music, though, one will definitely also find segments with melodious, harmonious sound.

The music is full of tension, often even suspense! At a first glance, one may find instances of Nachdrücken. However, most of this is written into the score, as Kodály often has crescendo forks over or below single notes and motifs. Even though the soundscape is much denser than in the Haydn quartet, I found the performance always to be clear and transparent. I particularly liked the warm, clear sound of the viola and the cello in solo passages. And yes: there was much more vibrato here. However, that fits the period in this music was written, and non-vibrato would be inappropriate with Kodály’s works (also considering the origins in folk music).

II. Andante, quasi recit. – Andante con moto – Allegretto – Più mosso – Allegro giocoso –Tempo I

Another movement full of suspense and tension, and with intense, highly expressive cantilenas in the “quasi recitative” introduction. In the Andante con moto, the recitative cantilena moves into the cello—full-toned, warm, sonorous, beautiful!

I found the intonation to be very good, even though the challenges here are not in non-vibrato, but rather in the “Hungarian harmonies and melodies”, and in the extended stretches where the musicians have very little (accompaniment, intervals) to “hold on to”. I felt that there are moments that are impossible to perform with 100% tonal purity. Maybe that’s not even intended?

Then, the middle voices take over the melody with rather virtuosic moments. I enjoyed the slightly nasal, but very intense sound of the viola—as well as that of the other instruments, of course. Very folksy, rhythmic, enthralling dance moments follow, with drone tones that almost remind of the folk moments in the preceding Haydn quartet. There are also moments of deep melancholy, passages with flautando playing. And all of a sudden, Kodály seemed to have remembered the beginning of Beethoven’s op.135, in almost literal quotes. Dissonances alternate with moments of intense harmony. Highly interesting music—enthralling, full of drive!

Overall Rating: ★★★★

Throughout this technically challenging composition, the quartet presented a truly joint effort, excellent in coordination and coherence. As an ensemble, the four musicians showed no weaknesses. Here, I definitely was amazed at how well and seamlessly Ronny Spiegel integrated with the quartet!


Beethoven: String Quartet No.16 in F major, op.135

Among the 16 string quartets by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827), the String Quartet No.16 in F major, op.135, is his last one, written in October 1826. The work has four movements as follows:

  1. Allegretto
  2. Vivace
  3. Lento assai, cantante e tranquillo
  4. Der schwer gefaßte Entschluß: Grave, ma non troppo tratto (Muss es sein?) – Allegro (Es muss sein!) – Grave, ma non troppo tratto – Allegro

Above the last movement, Beethoven wrote “Muss es sein? — Es muss sein!” (Must it be? — It must be!). This phrase is associated with the entire composition, and people sometimes use it as title for the work. I have posted an extensive comparison of numerous recordings of this composition, in which I have also included a somewhat detailed description of the movements. In addition, I have written about a live performance of this work, as part of a concert in Lugano, on 2017-04-22.

The Performance

I. Allegretto

First impressions here: in terms of tone, articulation and coordination, this seemed to follow the “standard” that the musicians set in the Haydn quartet. Throughout the movement, the intonation seemed a tad trickier, though. Is Beethoven’s writing more likely to expose smallest deviations? Also, I wondered why in some of the upbeat motifs (e.g., in bar 58ff) had a prominent sforzando on the last (third) upbeat note. I would have understood an accent on the second upbeat note (i.e., on the fourth quaver), or on the first beat of the next bar. On the other hand, I liked the timing of the pauses—so essential in this music!

At the a tempo, the artists switched to a distinctly mellow, portato-like articulation. At the same time, they maintained clarity and transparency. Excellent: the “hollow” sound in the unisono passages that quote a theme from the Great Fugue (Große Fuge) in B♭ major, op.133. In general, I liked the very careful, detailed articulation, and also here, the occasional portamento (especially in the first violin) did not feel excessive.

II. Vivace

It’s good that both repeats were observed. I had two quibbles with the performance in this movement: for one, the intonation wasn’t always quite clean. But OK: Beethoven was extremely challenging here. Those staccato notes in extreme jumps (particularly in the first violin) are tough! The other objection I had was that especially the low voices showed a tendency to put a crescendo onto syncopated three quarter notes, creating an unwanted accent on the (last) beat (the first beat of the subsequent bar), which defeated the effect of a syncope.

III. Lento assai, cantante e tranquillo

Yes: cantante e tranquillo! Warm singing, and absolutely calm, with a harmoniously growing vibrato on long notes. Yet, it wasn’t excessively lachrymose. I didn’t note any prominent instance of Nachdrücken. However, also here, I felt a tendency towards excessive swelling on longer notes. This sounds like easy music—but it’s very tricky on the musicians, as tiny details, like the “smell” of excessive belly notes, or a tiny bit of unrest, make the music lose tension and intensity.

IV. Grave, ma non troppo trattoAllegroGrave, ma non troppo tratto – Allegro

Excellent intonation in the unisono motifs in the Grave, ma non troppo tratto introduction. And this was performed almost without any vibrato! In the Allegro segment (“Es muss sein!“), especially in the transition from the Grave, the coordination in the staccato crotchets in the accompaniment was occasionally shaky, or at least not quite as good as expected. There were moments when the violins were too loud, covering the low voices, I noted occasional, small, and very likely involuntary tempo fluctuations.

Overall Rating: ★★★½

Overall, the performance of Beethoven’s op.135 didn’t feel quite as compelling as expected (or as the pieces prior to the intermission). Has the interpretation not quite settled yet? Or is this indeed so much of a challenge?


Encore — Mendelssohn: String Quartet No.2 in A minor, op.13 (III. Intermezzo)

For the encore, the quartet turned towards Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847), with the third movement (Intermezzo: Allegretto con moto — Allegro di molto) from the String Quartet No.2 in A major, op.13. That’s a work from 1827. Sarah Weilenmann was correct in calling it “Mendelssohn’s first string quartet”, as it actually predates what is now known as String Quartet No.1 in E♭ major, op.12.

A very atmospheric, calm interpretation in the Allegro con moto parts, folksy, slightly melancholic. The vibrato in the melody was maybe a bit strong? However, the Allegro di molto was stunning: sharp, highly precise and virtuosic in the staccatos, excellent, if not perfect in the coordination.
★★★★



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