Le Quatuor Sine Nomine
Arriaga, Shostakovich, Borodin
Semper-Aula, ETH Zurich, 2016-01-19
2016-09-19 — Brushed up for better readability
To me, this was the second string quartet evening in the context of “Musik an der ETH“, in the Semper-Aula of the main building of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (I better don’t mention details about the first such concert!), and expected it to be interesting to hear how the venue supports this type of chamber music (see my earlier concert reports from this venue). The program for the concert also looked very interesting!
The Quatuor Sine Nomine (“quartet without name”) was founded and is based in Lausanne, and it is looking back to a very long career. The ensemble is active since 1975. In 1985 the four musicians (Patrick Genet & François Gottraux, violins, Hans Egidi, viola, and Marc Jaermann, cello) won the “Premier Grand Prix du Concours international d’Evian“, as well as the “Prix du Jury de la Presse“. In 1987, they had another success at the “Concours Borciani à Reggio Emilia“. After that, they embarked on an international concert career, mostly in Europe and the US. Their name is meant to indicate that they don’t want to be associated with a specific composer or style. They rather want to serve all styles and all composers that they choose to perform.
Arriaga: String Quartet No.1 in D minor
Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga (1806 – 1826, actually: Juan Crisóstomo Jacobo Antonio de Arriaga y Balzola) was a Basque composer, born in Bilbao, Spain. At age 16 he was sent to Paris for further education (violin with Pierre Baillot, counterpoint with Luigi Cherubini, and harmony with François-Joseph Fétis at the Paris Conservatoire). He spent the remaining four years of his life in Paris: Arriaga died very young—like Mozart. With the latter, he shares the birth date (January 27th, exactly 50 years later), so he was sometimes called the “Spanish Mozart”. Like Mozart, he was a child prodigy and left behind a number of compositions: an opera, a symphony, three string quartets, church music, and instrumental compositions such as a nonet, an octet, studies for piano, and more.
This concert featured the first of his three string quartets, in D minor, composed around 1823. It features four movements:
- Allegro, 4/4 (1/2=76)
- Adagio con espressione, 3/4 (1/4=58)
- Menuetto, 3/4 (3/4=92) — Trio, 3/4 (3/4=60) — Menuetto da capo
- Adagio, 4/4 (1/4=50) — Allegretto, 6/8 (3/8=88)
Despite the brevity of his career, he developed his very own, personal, late-classical style / idiom. This was evident already in the opening fanfares of the first movement (Allegro): a restless, emotional atmosphere, mostly in minor tonalities—just what also dominates his symphony. The interpretation was very convincing right from the start, with excellent intonation and a very warm, mellow tone.
I experienced a perfect match in the sound quality of the four string instruments. If from the back of the hall one solely relied upon the ear for identifying the instruments playing, it often was absolutely unclear which of the violin was playing. Often enough, the eye then proved that it even was the viola, playing in the upper range. Sometimes (again, for the ear), the first violin seemed to dominate—and then, it turned out to be the melody, coming from an apparently arbitrary one of the instruments. Conversely, what sounded like the viola could also have been one of the violins in the lower tonal range. I was particularly happy to note that the acoustics of the Semper-Aula proved to support this ensemble in an almost ideal way.
The interpretation was emotional, expressive. Yet, the musicians kept playing with calm, flowing articulation, with a soft portato and nice, “speaking” agogics. Throughout the concert, the ensemble playing was excellent, perfectly synchronous in rhythm, articulation and rubato. The first movement often gave the impression of a dense texture. Nevertheless, the music remained sufficiently clear, transparent.
The Adagio con espressione was atmospheric, appeared with diligent dynamics, with a harmonious vibrato. There also were eruptions of emotionality, up to the wonderful ending that silently fades away. From watching the ensemble one got the impression of four people playing with utter concentration and devotion. They were mutually perfectly tuned and coordinated, yet requiring a minimum of interaction (such as eye contact). We witnessed masters of their profession, giving a testimony of several decades of common experience.
Throughout this performance I felt that the musicians really took Arriaga seriously, not belittling him as a secondary composer. They remained faithful to the score, also avoiding excessive or arbitrary rubato. It may be true that at that time (1823), Beethoven and Schubert wrote much more advanced and complex music for string quartet. However, I doubt that those composers (back then) made it to the area where Arriaga lived. The quartet is absolutely comparable / does not need to hide behind many of Haydn’s string quartets, even many of the earlier Mozart quartets.
Shostakovich: String Quartet No.7, op.108
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975) wrote 15 string quartets (and one extra movement, sometimes called the “Unfinished Quartet”); the String Quartet No.7 in F♯ minor, op.108 (composed 1960) is the shortest of these compositions, featuring three movements:
- Allegro — Allegretto — [Adagio]
With this, the listeners found themselves in a totally different soundscape, with a composition using a vastly contrasting musical language. The Allegretto is dominated by spiccato playing, light articulation, interspersed with pizzicato episodes. I experienced a rather frugal sound with very little vibrato (sometimes none at all). Even just in the intonation, this is a very tricky, delicate movement, in an excellent performance and interpretation. One interesting detail in the second part are those tenuto notes on empty strings, which take a “percussive start” through a strong pizzicato.
In the second movement, Lento, the composer calls for playing con sordino (with mutes). This evokes a pale, bleak atmosphere, in which meandering melody lines create a scenery of growing tension and expectation. I really liked the amazingly full, warm sound of the viola (which once again resembled that of the second violin).
The last movement is very virtuosic, busy almost like a swarm of insects (or birds) in mid-summer. The playing was rhythmically firm, very well-coordinated, driven, always moving /pushing forward, up to the last bars that slip away into silence, mostly in pizzicato.
Borodin: String Quartet No.2 in D major
- Allegro moderato, 2/2 (1/2=84)
- Scherzo: Allegro, 3/4 (3/4=80) — Meno mosso — Vivace (3/4=96)
- Notturno: Andante, 3/4 (1/4=60)
- Finale: Andante, 2/4 (1/4=76) — Vivace (1/2=108)
This a work belongs to a style that is probably to be called “Russian (late-)Romanticism”. It is music that (at least in the interpretation by the Quatuor Sine Nomine) remotely reminds me of works by Antonín Dvořák.
I. Allegro moderato
Once more, the artists played with compellingly homogeneous sound and internal consistency, e.g., in the perfectly “cloned” motifs in the imitatory sections. The playing remained smooth in the agogics, the rhythmics diligent, careful. I liked the well-balanced, never rushed triplets in the first movement, and I also note how faithful to the score the ensemble played.
One minor objection: the inverted semiquaver mordents (explicitly written out) were barely audible as such. A question mark: in bar 224, the composer writes staccato dots in the cello part, but in the melodically identical bars that follow, there is no such annotation (and a simile is missing, too). To me, the entire passage sounded portato.
II. Scherzo: Allegro — Meno mosso — Vivace
The Scherzo movement is technically very demanding with its scurrying quaver motifs. The musicians of the Quatuor Sine Nomine remained close / faithful to the score. They resisted indulging in an excess of rubato. They avoided roughness as much as possible, maybe even too much: I could well imagine some of the staccati being more pronounced.
The Meno mosso segments are very expressive, in a swaying 3/4 rhythm. Borodin added some rhythmic shifts and hemiolic bars. These avoid that the music feels too complacent. Still, to me, the Meno mosso parts evoked the picture of Viennese coffee music (also from the articulation, the tendency to use portamento). At the same time, they also remind me of some Music by Dvořák. I’m not sure whether that’s what Borodin intended with the annotation “molto cantabile e dolce“? In the aftermath, interestingly, the Meno mosso segments appear to dominate my memory from this movement, which ended silently, in a series of perfectly timed and coordinated pizzicati.
III. Notturno: Andante
The following movement is a Notturno, in which initially the cello, then the first violin are the melody voice. Both are singing in high positions. Later, also the middle voices get a chance to play the somewhat melancholic melody, which remotely reminded me of music from Fellini’s film “La Strada”. Again, the sound match between the instruments was absolutely stunning. This is certainly more than a careful selection of matching instruments, but equally a mutual adaptation to each other’s playing in articulation, vibrato, the amount of bow, bow pressure, bow position on the string. The musicians avoided pomposity (such as an excess of rubato). The articulation remained mellow, sometimes evoking the sound of flutes, or bird voices.
IV. Finale: Andante — Vivace
In the Andante sections in the Finale, I liked the careful, clean intonation (extremely tricky in the octave parallels!), combined with the ensemble’s warm, mellow sound. The latter does of course not apply to the beginning of the Vivace part and subsequent occurrences of the same theme: here, for the first time, we could hear rougher, harsher staccato sections. These were certainly intended by the composer. These fast parts require lots of agility—excellently mastered by the Quatuor Sine Nomine.
As a non-Russian, I can’t really tell how “Russian” the interpretation of Borodin by the Quatuor Sine Nomine was. Still, I personally found their performances in this concert to be musically consistent, compelling, well-rounded and convincing. The music was never presented with cold, shiny perfection: overall, an interesting, enriching quartet evening, for sure!
Encore — Dvořák: Waltz op.54 No.1
The artists played an encore: the Waltz op.54 No.1 (Moderato, B.105/1, arranged from B.101/1 for orchestra) by Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904). That’s a nice, atmospheric piece of music. Was this a coincidence, or do the musicians indeed associate Borodin with Dvořák, or vice versa?
For the same concert, I have also written a (much shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com, see also the note at the top. This posting is not a straight translation of the Bachtrack review.
As for the “Russian Character” of the interpretation of Alexander Borodin’s String Quartet No.2 in D major: Here’s a historic interpretation of the Borodin Quartet (mono only, unfortunately). It’s obviously vastly different from what I heard in the above concert: the two ensembles have a very different view about how to play Borodin!