Pacific Quartet Vienna
Beethoven: String Quartets op.127 & op.130

St.Anna-Kapelle, Zurich, 2019-04-12

3-star rating

2019-04-17 — Original posting


Pacific Quartet Vienna (© Julia Wesely)
Pacific Quartet Vienna (© Julia Wesely)

Introduction

By coincidence (or not so much maybe, as presumably it was a paid FaceBook promotion) I ran into an ad for a concert that the Pacific Quartet Vienna would give in the St.Anna-Kapelle in downtown Zurich, featuring an all-Beethoven program.

I was of course familiar with the two string quartets in the program (op.127 and op.130), but I had never heard the Pacific Quartet Vienna perform, wasn’t familiar with that ensemble at all (I may have run across their name on FaceBook lately). Also, I didn’t know about the existence of the St.Anna-Kapelle (St.Anne’s Chapel), very close to Zurich’s main shopping street, the Bahnhofstrasse.

The Venue

The St.Anna-Kapelle has its name from a medieval predecessor chapel, dating back to 1385. That chapel was torn down in 1912, in order to make space for a new building at the Bahnhofstrasse (a shopping mall, now called St.Annahof). The current St.Anna-Kapelle was built 1910, see the pictures below.

The interior of the chapel is rectangular, almost square and offers some 80 – 100 seats on the main floor. There is a lateral balcony, as well as an organ balcons. The latter has some 20 – 40 additional seats and a modest pipe organ.

As the ensemble accepted my offer to take photos, my wife and I sat at the right-hand side of the organ balcony. with a good view onto the quartet. In this concert, the ensemble and its support circle mobilized an audience of around 45 to 50 listeners.

All photos below are by the author (© Rolf Kyburz, all rights reserved).

The Pacific Quartet Vienna

The foundations of Pacific Quartet Vienna are at the University of Music and Performing Arts (Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst) in Vienna. Founded in 2009, it currently features the following members:

  • Yuta Takase, violin — *1983 in Yokohama (Japan)
  • Eszter Major, violin — *1986 in Lugano (Switzerland), of Hungarian descent
  • Chin-Ting Huang, viola — * in Kaohsiung (Taiwan)
  • Sarah Weilenmann, cello — Switzerland

The original formation of the ensemble (presumably all students of the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna) included its founder, Yuta Takase, and Sarah Weilenmann. In 2012, the second violinist and the violist left the ensemble. In their place, the quartet since included the Swiss-Hungarian violinist Eszter Major, and the Taiwanese violist Chin-Ting Huang. Details about the individual members are found at the Quartet’s Website. Since 2012, the quartet has performed in its current configuration.

Career

In 2015, the quartet launched its international career by winning the first prize, the audience prize and the special prize for the best interpretation of a work by Joseph Haydn at the 6th International Joseph Haydn Chamber Music Competition in Vienna. With that and two additional prized in 2016, in Basel and in Austria, started touring prominent concert stages in Austria, the U.K., Italy, and Switzerland.

The quartet’s focus is on the First and Second Vienna Schools, the quartet is engaging in intercultural exchange programs between Europe (Switzerland / Austria) and Asia (Japan / Taiwan), involving tours to Japan and Taiwan. In 2016, the quartet released its first CD (with works by Mazuzyumi, Haydn, Webern, and Derungs). A second CD with works by Haydn, Bartók, and Brahms came out in 2018.

Program

As mentioned above, in this quartet recital, the ensemble presented two late string quartets by Beethoven:


Beethoven: String Quartet No.12 in E♭ major, op.127

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) wrote 16 “main” string quartets. Among these, String Quartet No.12 in E♭ major, op.127, is a creation from 1825. It features four movements:

  1. Maestoso (2/4) – Allegro (3/4)
  2. Adagio, ma non troppo e molto cantabile (12/8) – Andante con moto (4/4) – Adagio molto espressivo (2/2) – Tempo I (12/8)
  3. Scherzando vivace (3/4) / Allegro (2/4) — Presto (3/4) – Tempo I (3/4)
  4. Finale (2/2) – Allegro con moto (6/8)

I have posted an extensive comparison of recordings of this quartet, in a post which includes score samples and other, additional information. So, I won’t spend more words on the composition here. On top of that, last year, I attended a quartet recital featuring this composition. See my report from the concert on 2018-05-05.

The Performance

Ahead of each of the quartets, the first violinist, Yuta Takase, gave detailed explanations on the compositions and their movements—in good, well-understandable German.

As he explained, the quartet also worked with Beethoven’s manuscripts (well, facsimiles, presumably), in order to try understanding the composer’s intent with these compositions. That’s a highly commendable approach! However, I think this does not work without also consulting / using a printed edition, as Beethoven’s handwriting was notoriously sketchy / hard to read and likely got worse towards the end of his life. Without extensive training & preparation, playing exclusively off the composer’s manuscripts must be close to impossible.

I. Maestoso

Interesting already the first bars: the articulation felt relatively mellow, the f and sf notes long, broad. The staccato quavers appeared almost attached to the preceding note, as if there was a slur, the staccato merely taken as instruction to cut the end of the quaver short. This certainly was a conscious decision by the ensemble, and I don’t want to state whether this is right or wrong. Personally, I prefer staccato notes to be detached, unless there is indeed a slur binding it to the preceding note. (In the aftermath, I did a quick survey among my recordings, and I found that the there is no uniform opinion on this, rather, the “big guys” are split almost half/half, with a slight preference to a solution close to the one chosen here.

Already these first bars revealed one characteristic of this ensemble: the mellow, flowing articulation which avoids harsh accents. This not only applied to the recurring Maestoso segments, but also to the other movements, and to the Allegro sections:

Allegro

A fluent tempo, again with relatively soft articulation. I noted the recurring portamenti, such as in the ascending fourths in the main theme, predominantly in the first violin. I have nothing against the occasional, discreet portamento, but when it becomes predictable and too regular, a “feature”, it feels too prominent to me, if not slightly irritating. There was more of this in the second part of the program.

Not only the articulation was mellow, never percussive, but also the phrasing, the dynamics felt rather “cloudy”, with a tendency to form “belly motifs”. In other words: motifs such as notes under a slur were predictably forming little dynamic arches (crescendo—climax—decrescendo); if applied to a single note, I would refer to this as a “belly note”. That is a philiosophy that one might agree with or not. In my opinion, it fragmented the flow, prevented the shaping of big, dynamic and dramatic arches.

I also noted a slight tendency towards Nachdrücken, which I regard a bad habit. The use of modern Tourte bows unfortunately comes with a tendency towards Nachdrücken. Other than that: the first violin dominated the sound. However, this is in Beethoven score, not a fault of the ensemble.
★★★

II. Adagio, ma non troppo e molto cantabile – Andante con moto – Adagio molto espressivo – Tempo I 

I noted the clear distinction in the sound of the four instruments. I don’t mean to say that the sound was divergent, but it actually helped the clarity of the performance to be able to identify every instrument. Here (and throughout the performance), the intonation was excellent, the dynamics careful (ignoring the “belly features”), all four musicians remained active and concentrated at all times. The interaction between the instrumentalists seemed to happen mostly through peripheral vision: the three lower voices focused on the sheet music, in the case of the first violinist it was often hard to tell whether he looked at the sheet music, or whether he was playing with closed eyes.

This movement saw a tendency towards Nachdrücken, and even more “belly motifs”. The latter again tended to obscure the larger structures, see above. The musicians used a harmonious vibrato, not too conspicuous or intrusive, though. But again, the portamento could / should?) have been more discreet. The sonority in general was excellent, well-balanced.
★★½

III. Scherzando vivaceAllegroPresto – Tempo I 

The best performance in this quartet: very good coordination, good tempo, full of momentum, short staccato, poignant punctuations and sforzati, clarity in the articulation and good intonation, technically clean, a movement from a single mold! The four musicians were even more focused, very active, playing “on the edge of their chairs / benches”. All repeats were observed. I particularly noted the excellent coordination / teamwork in the two middle voices (second violin, viola). And throughout the concert, the first violinist didn’t seem to face the slightest technical challenges.
★★★½

IV. Finale – Allegro con moto

Was it just my impression that the short fanfare in the first bar could have been more accentuated, more percussive? Maybe, that impression was influenced by the subsequent legato bars, which again tended towards “belly dynamics”? Then again, there were some rather (excessively) prominent (and predictable) portamenti. Also, the second theme in bars 106ff switched to a faster tempo. What motivated this? The score has no annotations to this effect. I rather was missing a light broadening around a climax: in these moments, the performance sometimes felt too “driven”. Was it this occasional, slight unrest that sometimes made me miss stronger (structural) clarity and contours?
★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★


Beethoven: String Quartet No.13 in B♭ major, op.130

Towards the end of his life, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) returned to the genre of string quartets again, creating a series of monumental works, all of which are central to the string quartet repertoire. In its original form, the String Quartet No.13 in B♭ major, op.130 premiered in March 1826, featuring six movements. I have heard this composition in concert several times. For simplicity, let me just quote from the review on a concert in 2019-03-16:

After the premiere, people found the last movement, the famous “Große Fuge” (Great Fugue) too hard to digest. It’s a huge movement with complex structure in itself: Overtura, Allegro – Meno mosso e moderato – Allegretto – Fuga, Allegro – Meno mosso e moderato – Allegro molto e con brio – Allegro. Confronted with the criticism by audience, critics, and musicians, including violinist and composer Louis Spohr (1784 – 1859), the publisher asked Beethoven for an “easier” final movement. Beethoven wasn’t happy with that response, but complied. However, knowing about the value of the Große Fuge, he had that published separately, as String Quartet in B♭ major, op.133, “Große Fuge. The quartet op.130 was published with the following movements:

  1. Adagio, ma non troppo – Allegro
  2. Presto
  3. Andante con moto, ma non troppo. Poco scherzoso
  4. Alla danza tedesca. Allegro assai
  5. Cavatina. Adagio molto espressivo
  6. Finale: Allegro

I have commented on earlier concert performances of Beethoven’s op.130 before. The last one was from a concert on 2019-01-21 in Bern. On top of that, I have written an extensive comparison of recordings String Quartet No.13 in B♭ major, op.130 with the new finale (there is also aseparate posting comparing recordings of the Große Fuge in B♭ major, op.133).

The Performance

Also here, Yuta Takase, gave detailed explanations on the history of the composition(see above), along with short explanations on the individual movements.

I. Adagio, ma non troppo – Allegro

The movement started with some “sneaking” transitions in the first bar. These seemed to be harbingers of—again—poignant, strong and predictable portamenti (e.g., just prior to the Allegro). It seems obnoxious to point this out all the time. However, the crux is that once the listener’s mind starts focusing on that “feature”, one will “stumble” over any other instances even more! In my mind, a portamento should appear like an occasional, discreet ornament, and as such, it should ideally (and pleasantly) surprise the listener. Unless, of course, the composer explicitly asks for a portamento or a glissando.

I liked the Allegro parts more than the slow ones. In particular, I noted the excellent interplay and cooperation in the various duo couplings: violin 2 / viola, viola / cello, violin 2 / cello, as well as the two violins: the polyphonic part (where all voices have equal weight) for the first time revealed the two violins were fitting / complementing each other very nicely. Also, critical octave passages between the two violins, towards the end of the movement, proved the ensemble’s firmness in intonation. Finally: this movement also revealed the beautifully characterful sound of the viola!

Thanks for repeating the exposition—that’s always a pleasure to note (or a disappoint if left out!), as it clarifies the structure to the listener, even if it makes up for a long movement.
★★★

(Side Note)

Pretty much throughout the concert, I felt that the voice of the cello typically could have beed a bit stronger, more robust, maybe more poignant in the articulation, especially in the lower segment. From this single experience, I can’t tell how much of this is due to the acoustics (perhaps giving more support to high-pitch notes?), to the characteristics of the instrument, or to the cellist’s playing. The fact that the cello was oriented away from me may have contributed to that impression.

II. Presto

Clean (ignoring the occasional portamento), a good performance, “on the chair’s edge”. Here, the score explicitly specifies the repetitive “belly dynamics” (in each of the four bars following the first double barline).
★★★½

III. Andante con moto, ma non troppo. Poco scherzoso

Also here, Beethoven specified some strong crescendo forks, and the ensemble remained faithful to the score. I liked how the artists controlled vibrato, e.g., how the first violin started long, extended notes without any vibrato, then gradually adding some: this created an intended (initial) acuteness, made these notes stand out.
★★★½

IV. Alla danza tedesca. Allegro assai

Here again, the “belly dynamics” were exactly Beethoven’s intent. Dynamics and articulation appeared careful and detailed throughout. Towards the end of the movement, motifs are passed / exchanged between individual solo voices. I felt that this was not done mechanically (not aiming for perfection in timing and an absolutely seamless rhythmic transition), rather, these transitions appeared musical, living, like in a discussion among four humans.
★★★½

V. Cavatina. Adagio molto espressivo

With this movement, I was less happy: I felt that the strong portamenti, the more than occasional Nachdrücken disturbed the simplicity, the calm of the atmosphere. Beethoven’s frequent crescendo / decrescendo forks should perhaps have been performed with more subtlety, maybe even just alluding, hinting, as gentle highlighting? On the other hand, I really liked the careful execution of the recitative in the first violin, above the triplet accompaniment, in the second half of the movement.
★★★

VI. Finale: Allegro

The highlight of the evening! An excellent performance, sleek, virtuosic, a naturally fast tempo, with perfect coordination & seamless transitions between the voices, clear, a compelling performance throughout. And the repeat of the exposition was of course observed also here. Congrats to this performance—and for selecting this finale, rather than falling for the spectacle of the Great Fugue! The latter is already performed often enough—and typically at the expense of this little masterpiece: thanks for this listening pleasure!
★★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★½

Pacific Quartet Vienna @ St.Anna-Kapelle, Zurich, 2019-04-12 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Pacific Quartet Vienna @ St.Anna-Kapelle, Zurich, 2019-04-12 (© Rolf Kyburz)


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