Quatuor Modigliani
Haydn / Saariaho / Brahms

LAC / Teatrostudio, Lugano, 2019-03-17

4.5-star rating

2019-03-22 — Original posting


Quatuor Modigliani (© Quatuor Modigliani)
Quatuor Modigliani (© Quatuor Modigliani)

Introduction

This third string quartet recital on Sunday afternoon in the “Teatrostudio” in the LAC in Lugano concluded this year’s “String Quartet Weekend” (Weekend Quartetti d’Archi). The previous concerts were on Friday, 2019-04-15, and on the evening of Saturday, 2019-03-16, see my separate reports.

The Artists: The Quatuor Modigliani

The Quatuor Modigliani (Modigliani Quartet) emerged in Paris in 2003 (see also Wikipedia): they studied with the Ysaÿe Quartet in Paris, took masterclasses with Walter Levin (1924 – 2017) and György Kurtág (*1926), and in 2005, they also worked with the Artemis Quartet in Berlin. The four members are

  • Amaury Coeytaux, violin
  • Loïc Rio, violin
  • Laurent Marfaing, viola
  • François Kieffer, cello

The ensemble derives its name from the famous Italian-Jewish painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani (1884 – 1920).

Instruments

Their instruments are all Italian, according to the ensemble’s Website:

Over their 16-years career, the Modigliani Quartet has already accumulated a respectable discography of 10 recordings, spanning from Haydn to Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945).

Program

Setting, etc.

In this Sunday afternoon concert, there was an audience of around 60. As in the first of the concerts two days earlier, my wife and I had seats in the last row, on the right-hand side block. All photos below are by the author (© Rolf Kyburz, all rights reserved).


Haydn: String Quartet in D minor, op.76/2, “Fifths”

For most of his life as a composer, Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809) wrote string quartets in groups of six works (opp.1, 2, 3, 9, 17, 20, 33, 50, 54/55, 64, 71/74, and 76). The six quartets op.76 from 1796/1797 are his last series. the only quartets outside of such series are op.42, op.51 (The Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross), the two quartets op.77, and the quartet (No.68) op.103.

The six quartets op.76 are dedicated to the Hungarian count Joseph Georg von Erdödy (1754 – 1824), so they are often called “Erdödy Quartets”.

String Quartet in D minor, op.76/2, “Fifths” (Hob.III:76) has its surname from the falling fifths in the exposition of the first movement. The four movements are

  1. Allegro
  2. Andante o più tosto allegretto
  3. Menuetto: Allegro ma non troppo
  4. Vivace assai

The Performance

Right at the onset, the ensemble’s professional attitude was very obvious: no extravagances, no casual gestures, no joking or other distractions, etc.: four gentlemen who made everybody else look casual. Their behavior was perfect—e.g., how they accepted the applause. Moreover, they even dressed identically, from their shirts (no tie or bow tie, top button open) to the suit, even down to socks and shoes. The single deviation from their “standard” was that the cellist kept the button of his jacket closed while standing, while the others left the jacket open at all time. All this might seem irrelevant for the concert, the music (people in the audience were dressed rather casually). However, I still think it mattered, as it underlined the professionality of the musicians. And it was in line with their very high musical standard.

Sound

I did not expect a strict, historically informed (HIP) performance—and it wasn’t: the instruments and the strings were modern (no pure gut strings), the artists used Tourte bows. However, the artists otherwise clearly incorporated the other, recent insights into how the music in their program was (presumably) performed at the time of the composition. The articulation was light, the sound transparent, the vibrato limited / controlled, even selective (never exceedingly conspicuous). And there was never even a trace of Nachdrücken!

Other, outstanding features in the performance were the warm sound (throughout the ensemble), the very careful, diligent articulation and phrasing, the perfect balance in dynamics and sound quality. The ensemble obviously could rely upon a harmonious set of excellent instruments, perfectly matching in their characteristics. None of the instruments ever dominated or otherwise stood out inappropriately. Ensemble performance in the best sense of the word!

I. Allegro

Despite the sparing use of vibrato (frequently non at all), the musician’s performance struck immediately with the richness in their expression, the light, yet harmoniously rounded articulation, the diligent phrasing, the careful, detailed dynamics, clean, if not perfect intonation. A performance full of momentum, conscious in the shaping of phrases, down to the articulation of motifs—masterful, yet never even a trace “heady”: pure musicality! Needless to say that the artists observed the repeat of the exposition—as they did in all subsequent movements: thanks, much appreciated! — ★★★★½

II. Andante o più tosto allegretto

The artists chose a moderate tempo, focusing on the Andante part of the annotation. That calm pace left ample space for detailed, careful articulation and phrasing. The clear, light and transparent playing remained entirely serene, unexcited, never harsh or too acute—yet, the artists maintained the tension at all times. Besides the beautiful, well-balanced sound of the first violin, I particularly enjoyed the warm, rounded sound of the viola in the last variation. String quartet sound at its best: can it be any better? barely! — ★★★★★

III. Menuetto: Allegro ma non troppo

Also here: a moderate tempo—no sport, no show, the transitions to the Trio and back inconspicuous: both parts (appropriately) felt like peasant dances, whereby the artists never exaggerated the clumsiness, while also avoided making the music sound like a caricature. — ★★★★★

IV. Vivace assai

Swift, virtuosic, full of momentum, but again without show effects. Yes, Haydn’s little jokes were all present (the occasional portamento / glissando), but without unnecessary exaggeration. Despite the fast tempo, phrasing and articulation remained detailed, careful and natural. Amaury Coeytaux’ playing was outstandingly clean, articulate and pure: I enjoyed every detail, including the very short cadenza at the final modulation to D major. — ★★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★★★

One of the best Haydn string quartet performances that I have come across—maybe even the best one ever? It was absolutely outstanding in its internal balance, its naturalness and musicality: pure joy to listen to! And: thank you so much for not drowning the music in “vibrato sauce”!


Saariaho: “Terra memoria”, for String Quartet (2006)

Kaija Saariaho (*1952, see also Wikipedia) grew up in Helsinki, Finland, where she studied with Paavo Heininen (*1938) at the Sibelius Academy. Further studies took her to Germany (Summer Courses in Darmstadt, then to the Hochschule für Musik in Freiburg).. Finally, in 1982, she moved to Paris, to work at the Institute for Research and Coordination Acoustic (IRCAM). Ever since, she has lived in Paris.

“Terra memoria” from2006 is her second piece for string quartet (the first composition for string quartet dates back to 1987). Saariaho dedicated “Terra memoria” to “those departed”, i.e., the people who have died, leaving behind a life that is “complete”, “fulfilled”, and which continues to exist only in our memories, our dreams. The title refers to earth (terra) as her “material as a composer”, and to memory as her method of working with that material. As Kaija Saariaho explains, “Terra memoria” contains elements that evolve over time (as memories & dreams go through transformations over time), while others remain distinctly recognizable.

Structure

Beyond the general description above, I did not find much detail on Kaija Saariaho’s piece via the Web. Let me therefore quote / freely translate the following text (by Etienne Reymond) from the concert handout (© LuganoMusica / www.luganomusica.ch):

Terra memoria mostly consists of repeated, short motifs.

(beginning) tremulating, repeated motifs grow out of pianissimo. An incantatory melody emerges.
(3′) The discourse calms down.
(4′) An agitated segment starts—always with fragments of ascending melodies that pass from one instrument to the next. The calm returns.
(6′) Grieving with descending motifs. The calm returns, though associated with anxious expectations.
(9′) The short motifs rise towards urgency.
(11′) A moment of excitement, turning into anger. Big chords, alternating with moments of anxiety.
(14′) The instruments unite and start crying desperately. The discourse grows more dense and excruciating, then it turns more tranquil.
(16′) Slow, mysterious motifs. The discourse grows into complexity, each instrument with an independent part. The music dies off in Grave.

… alternatively, listeners might simply let their imagination wander freely.

The Performance

Given the preceding Haydn performance, I did not expect anything less than an authoritative, flawless performance—and I was not disappointed. For this music, let me therefore focus on a description of my listening experience.

How Does it Sound?

The beginning sneaks in out of nothingness, trembling, very soft pizzicato added in, initially almost featureless: a mere hint at rhythmic accompaniment, like from far away. Sighing, sounds like from an Aeolian harp, whispering of the winds, gradually intensifying, more expressive, melancholic (“incantatory melody”), then fading away again: mere notion, more idea than reality?

The “agitated segment” (4′ in the list above), comes almost as a surprise, suddenly concrete, expressive, showing pain, whining, cries, anxiety, ghosts from the past, “floating, distant memories”, flautando, playing sul punticello, as well as sul tasto, with an airy bow—emptiness, pain, anxiety, all sound color without rhythm / structure in time.

As the pain intensifies (14′ in the list above), the ensemble unifies to a very impressive, strong unisono—the strength of the expression (of pain), as well as the sheer volume was astounding!

Kaija Saariaho does not let the music end in excruciating pain, but rather turns towards the whispering of manifold memories from the past, maybe of a distant notion of what might exist in a world beyond, or in another dimension, another universe. The music ends gentle, silent, more idea than melody, more noise than harmony, whispering into the distance…

Rating: ★★★★★

A really astounding piece of music, very strong in its colors and the expression, leaving very strong impressions!


Brahms: String Quartet No.2 in A minor, op.51/2

Johannes Brahms (1833- 1897) completed his two string quartets op.51 (String Quartet No.1 in C minor, op.51/1, and String Quartet No.2 in A minor, op.51/2) in 1873, dedicating them to his friend Theodor Billroth (1829 – 1894), surgeon and amateur musician. Brahms must have been working on these quartets for several years—a consequence of being overshadowed by Beethoven’s overwhelming works in this genre. The four movements of op.51/2 are

  1. Allegro non troppo
  2. Andante moderato
  3. Quasi Minuetto, moderato— Allegretto vivace — Tempo di Minuetto
  4. Finale: Allegro non assai — Più tranquillo — Più vivace

The final movement is modeled after a Hungarian folk dance, the Csárdás.

The Performance

I. Allegro non troppo

Mellow, warm sound, intense, full of emotions: the mature Brahms at his best! I now realized how close the second theme (B) sounds to music by Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1897). The ensemble kept the sound transparent, even in the dense, rhapsodic playing, the intense, joint effort in the development part. The coordination was flawless at all times: it was a pleasure to see how the musicians kept watching each other.

It did not surprise that the ensemble observed the repeat signs around the exposition. Careful, conscious shaping of the dynamics helped keeping track of the big arches. It’s a big movement, and despite the seamless, natural and harmonious transitions, it remained easy to keep track of the big structures (e.g., the transition to the development part). Yet, the playing, dynamics and agogics felt entirely natural, including the build-up into the very expressive coda. — ★★★★½

II. Andante moderato

Expressive, full of warm emotions, initially serene. Here, the vibrato occasionally felt a tad strong (one of my very rare quibbles in that concert!). The music goes through a short, dramatic tremolo eruption, turns almost violent (and here, the vibrato was fitting well). A very convincing performance in general, excellent in the broad arches. The intensity in all voices was outstanding: the interpretation as a whole compelling, of utmost coherence, maintaining the tension through all lyricisms. — ★★★★½

III. Quasi Minuetto, moderato — Allegretto vivace — Tempo di Minuetto

Emotions are present also here, though filtered by the Nordic “earnstness / distance” so typical of the mature Brahms: the Minuetto parts are mezza voce / p almost throughout. The contrasting Allegretto vivace segments rushed by almost ghastly with their leggiero semiquaver chains: the coordination was absolutely flawless, as were the transitions of motifs between the voices. — ★★★★★

IV. Finale: Allegro non assai — Più tranquillo — Più vivace

Intense, expressive, emotional: four musicians performing out of a single, unified spirit in agogics and rubato! Brahms leaves the lead role mostly in the first violinist’s hands, but we also got to enjoy the warm, harmonious sound of the viola. Compelling, retaining intensity and momentum up to the last bar! — ★★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★★½


Encore — Mozart: Divertimento in F major, K.138 (125c) — III. Presto

The encore the third / final movement, Presto, from the Divertimento in F major, K.138 (125c) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791). This is also known as “Salzburg Symphony No.3”, composed in 1772.

A joyful, fast, virtuosic ending—brilliant music in a splendid performance!

Conclusions

This was undoubtedly the clear highlight of this year’s Weekend Quartetti d’Archi. String quartet playing at the highest, international level—a top ensemble that one should keep an eye on! Four musicians who entirely put their efforts, professionality and mastership into the service of the music, the composers. No frills, no unnecessary antics, no show, no intellectual exhibitionism: rather, focus on the essentials, and pure musicality!

Sure, also the preceding two concerts were very interesting—but this alone already justified staying in Lugano for a weekend!



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