Quatuor Akilone
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart / Johannes Brahms

Konservatorium, Bern, 2019-04-01

3.5-star rating

2019-04-04 — Original posting


Quatuor Akilone (© Laurent Monlaü)
Quatuor Akilone (© Laurent Monlaü)

Introduction

It’s been a few months since I last visited a  chamber music event that the Bern Symphony Orchestra organizes in the big hall of the Bern Conservatory (“Konsi Bern” for the locals). This evening’s concert ran under the title “7. Kammermusik Bern / Mozart Meets Brahms“—another string quartet event!

The Artists: The Quatuor Akilone

The Quatuor Akilone is a formation of four young French women who describe their venture as “both a human and a musical adventure that was born in 2011 in Paris”.

  • Emeline Concé, violin
  • Elise de Bendelac, violin
  • Louise Desjardins, viola
  • Lucie Mercat, cello

In 2011, when they founded the ensemble, the artists were between 21 and 24 years old.

Career

The four artists met at the Paris Conservatory (Conservatoire national supérieur de musique et de danse de Paris = CNSMD de Paris), where they were trained by the Romanian violist Vladimir Mendelssohn (*1949). In 2013, they received their quartet license. In the same year, they became members of the ECMA (Académie Européenne de Musique de Chambre).

The Quatuor Akilone won the first prize at the Concours International de Quatuor à Cordes de Bordeaux 2016, and in the same year also the ProQuartet prize at the Centre Européen de Musique de Chambre. The ensemble has since engaged in a successful international career. They are cooperating with prominent artists such as Tabea Zimmermann (*1966, violist), Avri Levitan (violist), Jérôme Pernoo (*1972, cellist), David Walter (*1958, oboist & conductor), Florent Héau (*1968, clarinetist), Jean-François Heisser (*1950, pianist) and Pavel Gililov (*1950, pianist).

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The ensemble derives its name from “aquilone“, Italian for “kite”. The quartet’s first CD, featuring works by Haydn, Mozart and Schubert, has appeared in 2018.

Program

In line with the title of the concert, “Mozart Meets Brahms”, the ensemble presented works by these two composers:

Setting, etc.

My wife and I had the two right-most seats in the second row of the balcony, with excellent view. These are acoustically pretty much equivalent to most other seats in the hall. All photos below are my own (© Rolf Kyburz, all rights reserved).


Mozart: String Quartet No.2 in D major, K.155 (134a)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) was on a trip through Northern Italy when—1772, in Bolzano—he wrote his first “real” set of string quartets, the quartets now listed as K.155 up to K.169. These are also known as “Milanese Quartets“. The String Quartet No.2 in D major, K.155 (134a), “Milanese Quartet No.1” features three movements—as all other works in this early series:

  1. Allegro
  2. Andante
  3. Molto Allegro

The Performance

First impression: excellent, professional, refreshing! The appearance of the four artists was relaxed, but not casual, well-organized. And I liked the idea of a “uniform”: all four musicians were dressed in black, with trousers, the same style flat shoes, even a similar hair style. Throughout the concert, their performance was in line with their appearance: no “prima donna”, i.e., nobody overtly dominating, even though the first violin (Emeline Concé) naturally assumed the role of a prima inter pares.

As soon as they started playing, they stayed focused on the music, concentrated, keeping close contact (at least through peripheral vision). The first violin was oriented towards her colleagues, the cellist (Lucie Mercat) usually / seemingly fixated onto her sheet music. From the audience, the facial mimics of the second violinist (Elise de Bendelac) and the violist (Louise Desjardins) were the easiest ones to observe. These two also seemed to be the ones with the most active body language, and those who were seeking contact with their colleagues most frequently / actively.

I. Allegro

I liked the natural tempo, the momentum in the interpretation, the light articulation, the lively dynamics, and the moderate use of vibrato. With the exception of occasional, minor mishaps in fast, high notes in the first violin, the intonation was good. The sound of the instruments (all modern style, including the bows) was very close to that of pure gut strings: warm, not overly polished, rarely ever turning acute. Moreover, the sound of the instruments seemed to match extremely well. I particularly noted that with the two violins in the development part: Emeline Concé and Elise de Bendelac formed an excellent team, absolutely equivalent, perfectly in tune with each other.

I was very pleased to note that the ensemble repeated the exposition (and even though apparently, the manuscript has the double bar and the repeat sign crossed out). The musicians did the repeats consequently, throughout the evening: thanks! For the most part, Mozart’s score gives the two violins clear lead roles in this and the following movement, the viola has a short solo only at the end of the exposition, and again in the last bars of the movement. — ★★★½

II. Andante

As stated above, neither of the violins tried dominating the scene (unless the score asked for it), they readily moved into background when their voice was accompaniment to others. I found the dynamic balance to be excellent, and especially here I noted how full and warm the sound of the violins was on the G and D strings. It often seemed to approach (if not match) that of the viola. And the latter had a very warm sound, full of character—and not nasal at all (as frequently observed with violas). — ★★★★

III. Molto Allegro

Coordination and articulation were excellent in general. My main quibble is with the middle part (bars 49 – 66), were the punctuated crotchets in the first violin almost regularly seemed to swell, almost making the last quaver part sound like a syncope. Or was this a partial instance of Nachdrücken? — ★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★½


Mozart: String Quartet No.19 in C major, K.465, “Dissonances”

In the oeuvre of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) 23 string quartets survived to this day. After the “Milanese Quartets”, two more series of six quartets followed: the “Viennese Quartets” (K.168 – K.173) and the “Haydn Quartets” (K.387, K.421, K.428, K.458, K.464, and the one played here, K.465). After these and an isolated quartet (K.499, “Hoffmeister”), the shorter series of the three “Prussian Quartets” (K.575, K. 589, K.590) concluded Mozart’s quartet oeuvre.

String Quartet No.19 in C major, K.465, “Dissonances” from 1782 – 1785, the last one of the “Haydn Quartets”, is dedicated to Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809). It features four movements as follows:

  1. Adagio — Allegro
  2. Andante cantabile
  3. Menuetto: Allegro — Trio
  4. Allegro molto

The Performance

I. Adagio — Allegro

At first, I found the initial p in the introduction rather strong, compared to recordings by prominent ensembles that I listened to in preparation for this concert. But then I checked the score and realized that the beginning really is p only, not pp, which Mozart moves into only at the end of the movement. In the Adagio, I also noted several portamenti in the first violin—a few too many, maybe? I have nothing against the occasional use of portamento, if done with subtlety. However, when used too often, it turns into a “feature”…

In the Allegro, long (half) notes in the first violin were almost always swelling (“belly notes”), at times making them sound like syncopes. Again, there were occasional inaccuracies in high notes. Further, when long notes were played with little vibrato (which I really liked!), this exposed / accentuated the smallest intonation issues (e.g., when two instruments were playing note by note). There was also a very slight, occasional tendency to play a tad faster in louder or crescendo bars. But apart from these quibbles: the articulation was clear, excellent, as was the coordination, and the transition of fast motifs between voices. — ★★★

II. Andante cantabile

Calm, careful dynamics. I particularly liked the subtle, murmuring pp in the cello, in bars 26ff. It may be that a little stronger agogics would have made the interpretation even more intense? As earlier on, there was again a noticeable tendency towards belly notes—my main quibble here. — ★★★½

III. Menuetto: Allegro — Trio

The first edition of this quartet had the Menuetto annotated Allegretto. More recent editions corrected this to Allegro. The latter was definitely the tempo that the Quatuor Akilone selected: lively, moving / leaning forward, definitely not too comfortable, excellent entertainment! And also here, the ensemble performed all repeats.

In the Trio, the first violin has frequent, short motifs consisting of two crotchets under a slur. Emeline Concé performed these with a “joking glissando“. The score has no indications to that effect. To me, these glissandi were maybe too strong/prominent, certainly too frequent and too predictable: even if a joke was intended, one should not over-use / over-stress such features. — ★★★½

IV. Allegro molto

I didn’t always like the dynamics / articulation in long note values (see above), and in these same notes, strangely, there was occasionally enough vibrato to make the intonation sound a tad impure. On the other hand, I liked the lively, vivid dynamics. And I noted the excellent accord (intonation and coordination) between the two violins, which frequently move in parallel in this movement. And Emeline Concé’s articulation in the fast semiquaver passages was truly outstanding. — ★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★½


Brahms: String Quartet No.1 in C minor, op.51/1

Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) composed his first two string quartets, the String Quartet No.1 in C minor, op.51/1, and its sister work, the String Quartet No.2 in A minor, op.51/2, in summer 1873, while he was staying in Tutzing, Bavaria. Only one additional quartet was to follow: the String Quartet No.3 in B♭ major, op.67. Clearly, the overwhelming shadow of Beethoven’s quartet oeuvre caused Brahms to hesitate investing more efforts into this genre. The C minor quartet (op.51/1) is described as being “terse” and “tragic”, in contrast to the more lyrical quartet in A minor, op.51/2. It features the following four movements:

  1. Allegro
  2. Romanze: Poco adagio
  3. Allegretto molto moderato e comodo — Un poco più animato
  4. Allegro

The Performance

I. Allegro

Here now, the vibrato seemed stronger / more prominent than in the two Mozart quartets. That said, there were also long notes which were left with very little vibrating—which made these susceptible to the slightest intonation impurities. Clearly, Brahms’ score is much more challenging—musically in general, but especially in the intonation. Quite often, one instrument has double-stop segments in octaves of sixths, and these proved particularly critical in the intonation (e.g., the very exposed octaves on the viola in bars 7 – 10). And also here, portamenti were often too prominent and too frequent.

I also felt that the ensemble could have put more emphasis on contrasts in character and atmosphere, be more emphatic in rhapsodic segments. Maybe use more agogics, rubato?

II. Romanze: Poco adagio

What I really liked about this performance was the beautiful, warm sound of the first violin playing on the G and D strings—and at the same time the matching, well-adapted sound of viola and cello playing in the high register. It almost sounded as if a quartet of violas was playing! As far as articulation goes: I wasn’t so pleased with the tendency towards belly notes. And: I didn’t see a compelling concept in the area of vibrato—strength, frequency (no, I definitely would not want to hear synchronized vibrato—that would be horrible!).

III. Allegretto molto moderato e comodo — Un poco più animato

Articulation: there are some instances where Brahms writes crescendo and decrescendo forks over longer notes. However, I don’t think this should be applied universally. Especially in the melody line, there was a constant tendency towards swelling notes, often even towards Nachdrücken. I didn’t just dislike that esthetically: it also defeated the effect of rhythmic shifts / syncopated notes (e.g., ligatures across bar lines). On the other hand, Brahms’ accents were all performed well, not over-emphasized, never too strong, in line with the molto moderato annotation. Yes, the moody character, the atmosphere of the Allegretto was OK, but somehow, the performance seemed to lack coherence in the expression?

I felt that the Un poco più animato was more successful, despite the tendency towards belly notes in the melody line.

IV. Allegro

Too frequently, the artists performed slurs on crotchets as portamento, or rather glissando, to the point where it started to be annoying. Yes, here, there was coherence—in the strong, poignant unisono and note-by-note motifs / segments. But also here, there was this tendency towards “belly notes”. To me, this also disrupted the flow, the dynamics within the arch of a long phrase. And the intonation wasn’t always quite flawless.

Rating: ★★★

My review may seem rather critical—that by no means implies that I did not enjoy the music, the performance. However, to me, it demonstrated how difficult, how challenging this music is on the performers. Congrats to the ensemble for having the guts to tackle this work!

The ensemble now performs in concert for around 6 years. This evening proved how long, demanding and painstaking the process of forming a coherent chamber music ensemble is: the Quatuor Akilone has made major inroads in that process—and they are on a good way to “get there”. Technically they certainly have the potential to succeed in this competitive arena!


Encore — Dvořák: No.9 from “Cypresses” (Cypřiše) for String Quartet, B.152

In 1865, Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904) composed 18 love songs, published under the title “Cypresses” (Cypřiše), B.11, based on poems by Gustav Pfleger Moravský (1833 – 1875). 1887, 22 years later, Dvořák arranged 12 of these songs (Nos. 2-4, 6-9, 12, 14, and 16-18) for string quartet. He published these under the same name, “Cypresses” (Cypřiše) for String Quartet, B.152.

As encore, the ensemble performed one of the quartet arrangements of “Cypresses”, B.152: No.9. “Thou only dear one but for me” (Ó duše drahá jedinká), Moderato. In the original song cycle (B.11), this is No.4. It’s a warm, highly romantic song, murmuring (con sordino), dreamy, intimate, cosy. Interestingly, in their recital on 2018-05-05, the Gringolts Quartet selected the same encore.

As a music, this “song” cannot fail in adding a very atmospheric closure to a concert. An indeed, the warm cantilena on the second violin was very touching, reaching out to people’s heart. The best part, the highlight even of the evening? — ★★★★



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