Quatuor Hermès
Cherubini / Beethoven / Schubert

St.Peter, Zurich, 2019-05-12

3.5-star rating

2019-05-15 — Original posting

Quatuor Hermès (© Svend Anderson, 2017)
Quatuor Hermès (© Svend Anderson, 2017)

Introduction

This was the fourth of the 2018/2019 series String Quartet recitals at the Kirche (Church) St.Peter in Zurich, organized by Hochuli Konzert AG, a small (but fine), local concert agency. Since October 2017, this concert with the Quatuor Hermès is the eighth string quartet recital that I attended in this series and this venue. The agency has collected a fair number of subscribers, essentially filling the central block in the church nave. Several dozen additional listeners sat on unnumbered seats in the back and on either side of the main block.

My wife and I had first-row seats on the right-hand side of the rear block in the nave. This helped me getting up for photos without disrupting others too much. All photos below are by the author (© Rolf Kyburz, all rights reserved).

Artists — The Quatuor Hermès

The Quatuor Hermès (see also Wikipedia) consists of members who met as students, at the Conservatoire national supérieur de musique et de danse de Lyon (CNSMD-Lyon) in France:

  • Omer Bouchez, violin — 1796 instrument by Joseph Gagliano (1742 – 1820)
  • Elise Liu, violin — instrument by David Tecchler (1666 – 1748)
  • Yung-Hsin Lou Chang, viola
  • Anthony Kondo, cello — 1721 instrument by David Tecchler (1666 – 1748)

In 2008, these artists formed the current string quartet. At their young age, they have already won several first prizes at international competitions: 2009 in Lyon, 2010 in Geneva, and 2012 in New York. Their career has already taken the Quatuor Hermès to prestigious venues in Washington D.C. (Kennedy Center), New York (Carnegie Hall), Torino (Auditorium Giovanni Agnelli – Lingotto), Bologna (Accademia Filarmonica), and Mantova (Teatro Bibiena). The Quatuor Hermès also participated in various festivals, and they have recorded several CDs with works by

Program

The Website of the Quatuor Hermès lists a very respectable repertoire, ranging from early classical across romantic compositions, up to contemporary composers. In this program, the quartet selected just works outside of their recorded repertoire, and also not yet part of their posted, “official” repertoire:


Cherubini: String Quartet No.1 in E♭ major

Luigi Cherubini (1760 – 1842) was an Italian “classical and pre-romantic” composer. He grew up in Florence, then studies music in Bologna and Milan. After a brief stay in London, he went on to Paris in 1785, then spent the rest of his life in France. Cherubini is most known for his operas, but he also composed masses and motets, a symphony, six string quartets and a string quintet. His String Quartet No.1 in E♭ major from 1814 opened the program of this recital, which its four movements:

  1. Adagio (♪=104) — Allegro agitato (1/2=116)
  2. Larghetto sans lenteur (♪=116)
  3. Scherzo: Allegretto moderato (♩=126) — (Trio:) légèrement et détachées — Scherzo da capo
  4. Finale: Allegro assai (1/2=160)

The Performance

As the photos indicate, the appearance of the Quatuor Hermès was professional, factual / no-nonsense, well-organized, calm, devoid of nervousness. Over the past 11 years, the musicians have acquired plenty of stage experience. They played from sheets (not tablets), stayed focused on the music throughout the concert. The ensemble uses modern or modernized instruments (neck / fingerboard length and steepness) and Tourte bows.

I. Adagio — Allegro agitato

Things I noted from the first bar of the Adagio introduction: the full, warm, very characterful, slightly “grainy” tone. That didn’t primarily come from the cello, but from the violins (especially in the low strings) and the viola. And the instruments seemed to be matching ideally in their character. The quartet appeared to aim for character and expression, not for brilliance or a polished, smooth tone. Careful and truthful in the dynamics and articulation (excellent, these descending upbeat semiquavers and demisemiquavers!), the artists truly reflected the Adagio, i.e., calm nature of these 24 bars: a resting pace, with time for agogics, and even more so for a harmonious, well-timed fermata at the transition to the Allegro agitato.

From my notes on the Allegro agitato part: a mostly inconspicuous vibrato, slightly percussive articulation, whereby lightness and transparency seemed to have less importance than a harmonious ensemble sound. The latter indeed was striking! Also here, the ensemble exhibited a lot of differentiation in the careful dynamics, especially at the soft end. And again, I enjoyed the calm with which the artists approached general rests and fermatas.

Too bad the exposition appeared only once: one may debate repeats with works that are very well-known, but here, the repeat would have helped listeners in understanding the structure (I definitely missed it!). However, I later realized, the repeat probably fell prey to trimming the overall length of the concert.
★★★★½

As composition: an impressive movement with a dense, often polyphonic texture—excellent music, for sure!

II. Larghetto sans lenteur

A tricky tempo annotation—or, at least, an unusual one: “slightly broad, without slowness”. Though, the composer specified a metronome number: ♪=116. I liked the ensemble’s natural, stepping pace, the calm with which they approached the general rests. On the other hand, the vibrato, particularly in the first violin, now was more prominent, often somewhat nervous, which didn’t quite fit the calm nature of the movement, or at least of the main theme, the initial segment. I also noted some weaknesses / slight superficialities in intonation, especially in high positions in the first violin (these were also present in the first movement).

Oddly, the artists left out a major segment from Cherubini’s composition: after the initial 40 bars, the entire, subsequent dolce / légèrement segment (50 bars full of demisemiquaver figures) was missing. I don’t think this was just my use of a different edition. The subsequent Tempo I is essentially a variation of the initial 40 bars, so the omission makes little sense. I personally would rather omit the third segment, avec énergie. There, demisemiquaver figures are the accompaniment to a melody that feels “overused”: the first bars strongly remind of “Happy birthday to you” (was that “inherited” from Cherubini??). That movement didn’t seem quite as compelling as the first one.
★★★½

III. Scherzo: Allegretto moderato — (Trio:) légèrement et détachées — Scherzo da capo

I liked the lively, detailed dynamics, the accents, the slightly heavy (peasant dance-like) Scherzo nature of the movement, where the articulation deliberately was left somewhat “raw” and unpolished, especially in the first violin. And again: excellent fermatas!

The middle part, légèrement et détachées (the semiquavers), was excellent, with very light, airy bow, almost flautando, hushing by—not rushed, though.
★★★★

IV. Finale: Allegro assai

Here, one could enjoy the ensemble’s full warm sonority, which seemed to get the ideal support by the church acoustics. Excellent in its musicality, the performance was very good in articulation and coordination (though again: not polished to perfection). My main quibble was with the occasional intonation superficiality in fast passages, noted particularly in the first violin (though, this was the most exposed voice).

One thing I noted with the sonority of the first violin: as stated, the instruments seemed in excellent harmony, sound-wise. However, there was something special about the first violin. It wasn’t entirely seamless in its sonority across the tonal range: the lower strings (G, D, A) sounded quite dark (I occasionally caught myself checking whether it was not the viola which was playing!), whereas the E string (certainly steel) sounded distinctly brighter, often louder, more prominent. I didn’t see this irritating, or a flaw. Rather, I found it noteworthy, interesting.

Also, when I mentioned the “slightly grainy” sonority of the ensemble, that’s not a property of the instruments, but quite definitely a question of selection of strings and rosin, combined with weight and placement of the bow.
★★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★★


Beethoven: String Quartet No.4 in C minor, op.18/4

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) published a first set of six string quartets in 1801, as his op.18. These are now referred to as his “early quartets”. Among these works, the String Quartet No.4 in C minor, op.18/4, is the only one in a minor key. It features four movements:

  1. Allegro ma non tanto
  2. Scherzo: Andante scherzoso quasi Allegretto
  3. Menuetto: Allegretto — Trio — Scherzo da capo
  4.  Allegro — Prestissimo

I have discussed this composition in an extensive comparison posting in my blog, and I don’t want to waste space for duplicate explanations.

The Performance

I. Allegro ma non tanto

Virtuosic, electrifying, full of tension, often dramatic, excellent in the overall dramaturgy, the musicality. And the Quatuor Hermès performed the exposition twice—thanks! What I didn’t quite like, though, were the intonation superficialities (again, especially in high positions & fast passages on the first violin). These may also be a consequence of the often quite prominent vibrato (at least, that didn’t help!). To me, the occasional portamento didn’t feel like mannerism. It was still OK, though maybe sometimes approaching “too much”.

What I definitely liked was the beautiful cello cantilenas in the development part: I noted the very slightly covered / nasal quality of the instrument’s sound (I’m merely characterizing, not criticizing the sound).
★★★½

II. Scherzo: Andante scherzoso quasi Allegretto

More instances of marginal intonation. Here, for example, the low, marked f theme in the cello, but in general more again in the first violin, often associated with an excess vibrato and/or staccato in very high position. On the other hand, the movement gave listeners a chance to observe the engagement & the quality of the middle voices, and the careful dynamics in general.
★★★

III. Menuetto: Allegretto — Trio — Scherzo da capo

Beethoven’s Menuetto is the real Scherzo! Fast in the tempo, agiler; not rushing, but urging forward. The contrasting Trio felt like an idyllic island in a stormy sea, gentle, tremulating along. The Menuetto da capo was even faster, more dramatic than the fist instance.
★★★½

IV.  Allegro — Prestissimo

The ensemble’s slightly mellow articulation (an impression to which the acoustics may have contributed) didn’t always work out to the movements’s advantage. Some short notes & acciaccaturas, also details in the articulation were slightly superficial, e.g., in the second couplet.
★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★½


Schubert: String Quartet No.13 in A minor, op.29, D.804, “Rosamunde”

in 1824, Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) turned his efforts away from composing Lieder, now focusing on chamber music. After his youth works, the quartets No.1 – 11, all from 1812 – 1816, the String Quartet No.13 in A minor, op.29, D.804, “Rosamunde”, is the first completed quartet composition in his late series of three quartets. All these are corner stones of the string quartet repertoire, showing the composer at the height of his creative abilities. At the same time, these late works all are indicative of Schubert’s desperate attempts to come to terms with the finiteness of the human existence, his fight with premonitions of an early death.

The surname “Rosamunde” comes from the second movement, which uses the theme of Entr’acte No. 3 in B♭ major from Schubert’s incidental music to “Rosamunde”, D.797. The same theme also appears in the Impromptu in B♭ major, op.142/3, D.935/3.

The quartet No.13 only appeared in print in 1852, long after the composer’s death. It features four movements:

  1. Allegro ma non troppo
  2. Andante
  3. Menuetto: Allegretto — Trio — Menuetto da capo
  4. Allegro moderato

The Performance

I. Allegro ma non troppo

More than in the previous works, here, the vibrato often irritated. Especially where the first violin alternated between passages with vibrato and tones (also empty strings) without. To me, the often prominent vibrating disturbed the purity, the simplicity of the cantilena. I did like the agogics, the dynamics. The tonal purity once more turned out critical: this movement is inherently and notoriously difficult in intonation (e.g., the frequent octave parallels between the two violins).

The performance was often very expressive. Yet, to me, the music could show more of the composer’s despair, the drama, the ruptures (the abysses of some of the general rests!), the sudden mood swings, the moment of forlornness.

II. Andante

Once more, less vibrato would have been better for the cantilena, the well-known Lied theme. Also, the prominent portamento (sometimes giving the impression of “slurred” articulation) didn’t help. Here, the articulation occasionally seemed hesitant, the sonority was strangely (but obviously deliberately) matte. I caught myself checking whether the first violinist was playing with mute!

III. Menuetto: Allegretto — Trio — Menuetto da capo

In the Menuetto part, the articulation often felt “foggy”, slightly unclear, often inaccurate, with an occasional tendency towards “belly notes”. For example, many of the quaver punctuations appeared softened to triplets (occasionally even more). On the bright side, the artists observed both repeats.

The Trio was spreading cosy, Viennese coffee house atmosphere. Comfortable, close to folk music, with portamenti, etc.; to me, this was setting the bar too low. Schubert may have alluded to such atmosphere, but I don’t think the music should make the listener forget about the composer’s pain and anxieties.

On the other hand, I found the pp return to the Menuetto excellent, the highlight moment in this movement.

IV. Allegro moderato

I liked the atmosphere, the mood in the Finale. It’s an often rather virtuosic movement, especially in the first violin, as well as in the middle voices (around the climax). To a certain degree, the church acoustics may have blurred the articulation in some of the virtuosic semiquaver passages.

Rating: ★★★


Conclusions

I did not like all aspects of the Quatuor Hermès’ Schubert performance, and some of my remarks on the Beethoven Quartet sound critical. Nevertheless, I should say that the artists offered a lively and active interpretation. They maintained the tension, remained active. There wasn’t a single, dull moment in this concert. It was actually one of the longest in this series: when my wife checked the clock after the concert, she was almost shocked at how much time had passed!



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