Bartók / Scartazzini / Schubert
Konservatorium Bern, 2018-03-19
The Quatuor Diotima is a string quartet formation that was founded in 1996 by laureates of the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris. The four members are
- Yun-Peng Zhao, violin
- Constance Ronzatti, violin
- Franck Chevalier, viola
- Pierre Morlet, cello
Judging from their discography, Constance Ronzatti is the only current member who joined the formation more recently (her predecessor at the second violin was Naaman Sluchin), the others (Yun-Peng Zhao, Franck Chevalier, Pierre Morlet) are founding members. The main focus of the Quatuor Diotima is on contemporary music.
As for the name of the quartet, I’m quoting from their Web site (links and years are my addition): The name reflects the musical double identity of the group: the word Diotima is a reference to German Romanticism—Friedrich Hölderlin (1770 – 1843) gave the name to the love of his life in his novel Hyperion (1797 – 1799)—while it is also a nod to the music of our time, recalling Luigi Nono’s (1924 – 1990) work Fragmente-Stille, an Diotima (1979 – 1980).
Diotima (Διοτίμα) of Mantinea is the name of a Greek philosopher and priestess, ca. 440 B.C.
The concert was given in the big hall of the Conservatory in Bern. The concert was basically sold out. The quartet arrangement was violin 1 — violin 2 — viola — cello.
Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945) wrote his String Quartet No.3, Sz.85 in 1927. The composition features four movements, all following each other without interruption:
- Prima parte: Moderato
- Seconda parte: Allegro
- Recapitulazione della prima parte: Moderato
- Coda: Allegro molto
For more information see Wikipedia.
I. Prima parte: Moderato
A very bleak beginning, as intended by the composer (pp, with mutes, the cello with flageolet), with very little vibrato. Particularly for a beginning, let alone as first movement in a concert, this is very challenging in the intonation. That latter aspect was OK, though to me, the portamenti (or rather glissandi), particularly in the first violin were rather (too) extreme, too “expressive”. The score does not indicate articulation, other than legato slurs and portato bars. But I liked the build-up to the Sostenuto ff.
The Più Andante segment the does ask for sul ponticello playing (for an eerie sound effect) and explicit glissando transitions. Hence, I don’t think Bartók wanted glissando in places other than those specified. I have no objections against the occasional portamento, provided it does not occur abundantly. The movement then turns rather dramatic in its dynamics. I liked the expressive articulation and tone—sound esthetics are secondary in this segment. The one other quibble I have is that in the second half of the movement, some of the explicit appoggiaturas were again performed with glissando, such that the two notes appeared blurred, not clearly delimited.
II. Seconda parte: Allegro
Excellent playing, very alert, with momentum, very good rhythmic coordination! Also here, sound esthetics are absolutely secondary (the intonation was definitely good!)—this part is wildly percussive. The sudden switch to sul ponticello playing at  (and back again at ) was fascinating! Actually, it’s a fascinating movement altogether, rhythmically demanding, challenging in coordination and rhythmical firmness. An excellent performance, for all I can tell. I’ll return to characterizing the sound of the instruments, the ensemble later.
III. Recapitulazione della prima parte: Moderato
This is a partial recap of the first part—now with plenty of glissando in the score, all of course performed as specified. Maybe the ordinary legato articulation was sometimes a bit soft, as already at the beginning?
IV. Coda: Allegro molto
the first part of the movement starts with rapid sul ponticello playing, mostly pp, on cello and viola together with the lowest string serving as drone sound. The Quatuor Diotima took this to the extreme, playing very close to the bridge, such that the actual tones (chains of semiquavers) were more noise than tones of defined pitch and duration. Interesting, at the very least!
Scartazzini: String Quartet No.1 in Six Movements
Andrea Lorenzo Scartazzini (*1971, see also Wikipedia) grew up in Basel, where initially he did German and Italian Studies. He then switched to studying composition with Rudolf Kelterborn (*1931) at the Musikhochschule Basel. Scartazzini continued his studies with Wolfgang Rihm (*1952) in Karlsruhe. He has since worked both as composer, as well as music teacher. In terms of compositions, his most prominent output is in operas, which have been performed at major European opera houses. He recently completed his String Quartet No.1 in Six Movements—a work that premiered 2017 in Basel.
Scartazzini describes his work as featuring three main movements, each of which is preceded by a short movement / introduction. These short pieces are the key structure of the work, where by movement I defines the basic “material”, consisting of a short pizzicato gesture, a cantilena, and “noise-like orchestrated silence”. Movements III and V vary this pattern. The first main movement (II) features an accelerando of slowly swaying chords up to a prestissimo of maximum “brightness” and power. Movement IV starts with dream-like textures that evolve into melodic singing, which periodically fuses with the underlying rhythmic base. The final movement (VI) is rhapsodic and narrating, with dramatic build-ups and segments with resignative heaviness, as well as lyrical tenderness.
As I don’t have a reference to compare this performance with, I’m essentially just describing my impressions as a listener. As a reminder, I’m repeating translated quotes from the composer’s description. The intersection between movements was not always obvious, as pieces started and ended often in near-silence (just in case someone tried correlating my notes with a score!).
A short pizzicato gesture, a cantilena, and “noise-like orchestrated silence”.
The cantilena is merely an expansion of the initial, isolated pairs of cello pizzicato on the same note: the viola adds a second voice, a rudimentary melody from isolated pizzicati soon ends. This is followed by—nothing, for the ear, at least initially: the cellist plays in the string holder, in the rear of the audience nothing at all can be heard. But of course, the listener sees the bow movement and starts imagining sounds, which then gradually turn into reality. Carefully some pizzicato playing sets in, short melody fragments with the bow, more noise, pizzicati with echos.
II (Main Movement 1)
An accelerando of slowly swaying chords up to a prestissimo of maximum “brightness” and power.
In continuation from the introduction, the movement starts with extreme pppp—played sul tasto, i.e., the opposite of sul ponticello: the bow is near the middle of the string (above the fingerboard), producing a different, but equally eerie sound. Later in the movement, the instrument appear to “breathe” without defined tone, when the bow moves on the part of the string behind the bridge.
Out of the initial pppp, the instrument “breathe” glissando notes, like distant lamenting, mourning, approaching slowly. Tremolo sets in gradually, grows stronger, more lively—a group of strongly interacting, debating, lamenting people. Chattering, predominantly at very high pitch, finally the “breathing behind the bridge”: it’s all very pictorial, strongly imaginative—I felt the opera composer!
III (Intro 2)
Battering on the body of the instrument, more breathing noise, isolated pizzicato tones, scarce melodic gestures, like question marks, the first violin starts longer phrases, “sentences”, holding, a monologue above a buzzing noise — or are we already in the second main movement?
IV (Main Movement 2)
Starts with dream-like textures that evolve into melodic singing, which periodically fuses with the underlying rhythmic base.
Glissando, narrow intervals in waves, a chattering first violin above resting tones and flageolets
V (Intro 3)
Extreme, whistling flageolet from the first violin; equally extreme pizzicato, also behind the bridge (just noise!), glissando-flageolets.
VI (Main Movement 3)
Rhapsodic and narrating, with dramatic build-ups and segments with resignative heaviness, as well as lyrical tenderness.
Repeated motifs, but not really melodic, lively interaction between the voices: in the effect, this felt close to musique concrète, even momentarily reminding of electronic music (say, from 30 – 40 years ago). Then, for a moment, the music appears to turn tonal, become harmonious, but then the extreme tweeting of birds, accompanying pizzicato segments sets in again, finally vanishes into nowhere … A play between cold, “technical” atmosphere, devoid of feelings, and momentary “lyrical tenderness”.
Overall, a very interesting kaleidoscope of scenes, pictures, atmospheres, noises—entertaining, for sure. Very pictorial, imaginative, thought-provoking, never boring. I don’t think the composer expected the listener to develop an intimate emotional relationship with this composition (as far as I can tell, the only one “emotional moment” was close to the end). At the same time, I would not call this a “pure intellectual exercise”. I see this as an imaginative film, an entertaining sequence of pictures. And the Quatuor Diotima did an excellent job at bringing that to life!
Schubert: String Quartet No.15 in G major, D.887
Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) wrote his String Quartet No.15 in G major, D.887 (op.161) in 1826, two years before he died. This is his last contribution to the genre. Only in 1851, the string quartet in G major was finally published. Hereby, it received the opus number 161. the quartet features four movements:
- Allegro molto moderato, 3/4
- Andante un poco moto, 4/4
- Scherzo: Allegro vivace, 3/4 — Trio: Allegretto, 3/4
- Allegro assai, 6/8
This was my first “real” live encounter with this work, but I have written about an earlier performance with chamber orchestra in Zurich, on 2015-11-21. In addition, I have compared three recordings of this composition in detail, so I won’t add more explanations here.
I. Allegro molto moderato
The movement started with an impressive crescendo from p to ff. Though, after the first fermata, that second beginning from pp was really just whispered, out of nothing, or out of a mere premonition. Throughout the movement, I liked the excellent agogics (e.g., that little ritenuto on the upbeat to the second theme, or around peak notes in a phrase), the subtle rubato, the excellent realization of the sudden changes in atmosphere, and the extreme and very detailed dynamics. And: their interpretation was very close to technical perfection.
As for the sound of the ensemble (it’s better to judge this with music that one is familiar with): I certainly liked the ethereal aspect of their sound. I would also characterize it as analytical, transparent, certainly not dominated by the sound of the cello, maybe a bit too much on the side of metal strings. Though, the basis for that last comment may be my personal shift in preference towards gut strings and period instruments, especially for classical music.
My impression was often that of a “3 + 1” sound, i.e., the cello was the least integrated instrument, sound-wise. That played out for the cello in (not infrequent) segments where that instrument has the cantilena, whereas the others accompanied in their “technical” sound. That latter aspect in a way felt like a reminiscence, an after-shadow of the more technical aspects of the previous pieces, where noise and technicalities dominated over warm cantilenas.
Overall, my impression from that movement was that of a modern approach, which put forward Schubert’s extremes in emotion and expression. These extremes are everywhere in the movements: e.g., already at the first fermata in bar 14 (I mentioned that above; this is also duplicated in the recapitulation), where, just a few bars of a strong ff exclamation) the lower 3 instruments whisper in the finest tremolo, while the first violin plays a longing, very touching recitative—a reminiscence of a distant and lost past? The cello tries to respond, to appease, but inexorably, the next ff eruption is waiting around the corner.
I was happy to note that the exposition was repeated—in a monster movement of around 22 minutes! Some noteworthy moments: the extreme acceleration (without indication in the score) towards the climax in the development section. Thereafter the equally extreme fermata before the recitative reappears in modified form.
The ensemble seemed to point out Schubert’s modernity, i.e., the composer being far ahead of his time. Despite what I stated about the ensemble’s sound, their interpretation can’t be called “purely technical”: it’s definitely not devoid of emotions.
II. Andante un poco moto
From my spontaneous notes: “a cello with intense, but lonely singing; the other voices like from another world. Not cold, but with warm emotions.” A “suspended” atmosphere. Excellent dynamics, coordination and transparency in the dramatic, eruptive minor (“thunderstorm”) segment that follows. And again, as in the first movement, the cello was the instrument developing the most individuality, showed the most emotions. In their perfection in articulation, etc., the upper voices left a certain “technical” impression, despite the use of vibrato.
Between the lightning storm eruptions, there were these calm, restrained segments, full of tension and suspense: calm, but also forlornness and despair—a strong movement (luckily with an appeasing ending!), which hardly failed to engage the listener!
III. Scherzo: Allegro vivace — Trio: Allegretto
Very clean playing, a ghastly atmosphere in technical perfection and excellent coordination in the Scherzo part. As for the sound: I noted that the viola sounded a bit on the nasal side—my personal preference would have been a warmer, more full-bodied tone. But I can’t say I disliked the viola playing at all. In general, the playing was technically brilliant, never ever superficial.
In the Trio, my main quibble was that the inverted mordent in the theme melody (the first instance is in bar 7) was not performed consistently throughout the piece and throughout the voices. I would have preferred it to be performed uniformly, and a little more prominently: why otherwise would Schubert ask for that ornament? This was one of the few bits which one could view as being superficial at times.
IV. Allegro assai
Schubert’s last quartet movement doesn’t offer much joy and happiness—a rather restless piece! The Quatuor Diotima presented it with restrained sonority, technically clean in general. To me, it did not always feel entirely coherent, dramatically.
Also, I sensed that the strain of a long quartet evening started to have its effect: the Schubert quartet alone is over 50 minutes! There were occasions in this movement when the articulation particularly in the first violin started to lose clarity. In the Coda, the articulation tended to broaden gradually. Also the intonation appeared to start suffering slightly. But this was a live situation, not a CD recording—and and the performance in this concert definitely was more than just a respectable achievement!
Technically, the ensemble was essentially flawless, especially in coordination, articulation, dynamics, agogics. As stated, the sound of this ensemble was relatively bright, certainly reflecting the use of modern (steel / metal-clad) strings. This definitely suits / profits the contemporary and late / post-romantic repertoire. In that sense, I found the performance Bartók and Scartazzini to be the highlights in terms of overall coherence.
For classic and early romantic works, however, my personal preference would be for a less analytical / technical sound, for more of a warm, round, coherent sonority. But then, this may require a different set of instruments, and that may be a huge challenge, and expensive!