Signum Quartett — Kirche St.Peter, Zurich, 2017-10-08


2017-10-11 — Original posting


St.Peter Church, Zurich, 2017-10-08

Signum Quartett

Haydn / Beethoven

3.5-star rating


Signum Quartett (© Irène Zandel, 2016)
Signum Quartett (© Irène Zandel, 2016)

Introduction

The renovation of the Kongresshaus Zurich, and with that, the two halls in the Tonhalle Zurich, for the coming three years had consequences for the Zurich concert life:

  • The Tonhalle Orchestra moved out to a temporary “home” location, in the Tonhalle Maag in Zurich’s West
  • The Zürcher Kammerorchester (Zurich Chamber Orchestra, ZKO) is spreading its performances over various venues in Zurich (including the Tonhalle Maag)
  • Chamber music events are moving into locations such as Church St.Peter in Zurich

One organizer apparently saw an opportunity to launch a new concert series, as not quite all of the Tonhalle audience is willing to travel to the Tonhalle Maag: he started a series of string quartet concerts in the Church St.Peter.

St.Peter is the first church consecrated under Protestant rule, 1704, in lieu of a gothic predecessor church. The tower with Europe’s biggest church clock face (8.7m) is from predecessor buildings. The location actually is the site of an ancient Roman castle. Today’s church still has remainders from earlier structures, but now is essentially in baroque style.

The Signum Quartett

The ensemble features the following members:

  • Florian Donderer, violin
  • Annette Walther, violin
  • Xandi van Dijk, viola
  • Thomas Schmitz, cello

Annette Walther and Thomas Schmitz founded the quartet in 1994. The ensemble) is based in Cologne, Germany. They studied with notable ensembles such as the Alban Berg Quartet, the Artemis Quartet, as well as the Melos Quartett Stuttgart. For additional information see also Wikipedia. The ensemble’s Web site has not information on the instruments, other than that Florian Donderer is playing a violin built by Peter Greiner in 2003.

The concert series apparently attracted a fair number of subscribers, occupying the central block in the church seating. The other seats were not numbered. So, those who made it to the ticket sales some 45 minutes prior to the beginning had chances for excellent seats: an opportunity not to be missed! This concert was the first one in the quartet series, except for an opening concert on 2017-09-10, which sadly I missed. The series continues 2018 with five very interesting concerts in the same venue. I hope to cover as many as possible among these.


Kirche St.Peter, Zurich, 2017-10-08, concert Signum Quartett (photo: Lea Kyburz)
Kirche St.Peter, Zurich, 2017-10-08, concert Signum Quartett (photo: Lea Kyburz)

Haydn: String Quartet in D major, op.20/4

The Composition

The six string quartets op.20 played a key role in establishing Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809) as creator / inventor of the genre. He composed these quartets around 1772, while working for the Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy. The set of quartets in op.20 bears the surname “Sun Quartets” (Sonnenquartette)—merely because the title page in the 1779 edition featured a drawing of the sun.

The String Quartet in D major, op.20/4 (Hob.III.34) bears the characteristics so typical of Haydn’s works in this genre: classical, multi-faceted, exotic, as well as humorous. The quartet has four movements, whereby the second movement is a theme (Un poco Adagio affettuoso, 2/4) with four variations. The third movement is a Menuetto with the annotation “Allegretto alla zingarese“, i.e., in gipsy style. In this case, the “zingarese” style involves syncopes against downbeat accents, and the augmented fourth stage, G♯. The last movement contains some harmonic surprises, such as oddly sounding interjections with diminished fourths (C♯ – F):

  1. Allegro du molto (3/4)
  2. Un poco Adagio affettuoso (2/4) — Var.I – IV
  3. Menuetto: Allegretto alla zingarese (3/4) — Trio (3/4)
  4. Presto scherzando (4/4)

The Performance

The quartet setup featured the two violins sitting on the left, the cello behind the viola on the right side. It’s always interesting to observe the social interaction between the musicians in such a small formation. Different from the Hagen Quartet (see the concert review from 2017-10-01, yet to be published), which appears to have “internalized” such interaction, seemingly functioning with invisible communication, these artists frequently made eye contact. The first violin (Florian Donderer) clearly appeared to take the lead role, except when his part was pausing, of course. The other three members of the team kept contact among themselves, as well as of course with the first violin.

I. Allegro du molto

The first thing that I noted was the mellow, velvety sound of the instruments, primarily the violins, as if they had been using gut strings. The latter is unlikely, as they were using modern Tourte bows. At least in the first part, there was virtually no vibrato, which I really appreciated. Throughout the evening, the vibrato remained selective, never turned intrusive, nervous or otherwise irritating: excellent!

Not only the sound was mellow, but also the articulation: light, never harsh or brisk. I noted that particularly staccato crotchets sounded almost portato. That reading may be debatable. However, in this venue with its very noticeable reverberation, it seemed to fit the acoustics. The reverberation would have “lengthened”, blurred a true staccato anyway.

Sound-wise, the first violin appeared to dominate the scene. To a large degree, this was inherent with Haydn’s writing / texture. Though, I found that it persisted throughout the evening, to some degree at least. Certainly, Florian Donderer made the melodic lines of the first violin flourish, with all of Haydn’s ornaments. In terms of dynamics, the artists chose a scope from pp to (mostly) mf, with some liberties: for example, the pp in bar 61ff. rather sounded mf, if not more. I liked the idea of playing some of the semiquaver quadruplets (particularly those close to the double bar) inégal rather than regularly. The artists did not repeat second part of the movement.

II. Un poco Adagio affettuoso — Var.I – IV

Again, I liked the very moderate vibrato, particularly in a slow movement, where the temptation always exists to start excessive vibrating! In the second part of the  theme, the first violin added some extra ornaments. This was a welcome addition in a movement which (from the composition) appeared to have aspects of an emotionally restrained, abstract, almost intellectual construct.

In the first variation, the second violin took over the lead, in tone & articulation ideally matching the first violin. The second variation is “owned” by the cello: I liked the subtle, swaying agogics! The next variation returns the lead to the first violin, with its rich semiquaver triplet melody line, again with rich agogics and a vibrato-less accompaniment in the other voices. The last variation has no repeats. What stood out here was the downward scale in parallel thirds between the two violins: not just perfect in intonation, but also in articulation and rhythmic coordination!

III. Menuetto: Allegretto alla zingarese — Trio

In the Menuetto part, the ensemble avoided exaggerations, playing rather mellow sforzati. However, overall, the interaction between the artists was very vivid, despite the relatively heavy character of the music in the moderate tempo chosen. In the Trio, I enjoyed the lively, yet subtle cello solo with excellent agogic play.

IV. Presto scherzando

A real fun movement, in a very lively, playful interpretation, showing how much the composer must have enjoyed his jokes! Excellent playing, an interpretation that deserves the label “historically informed” (despite the modern bows), never losing tension: very good!


Beethoven: String Quartet No.15 in A minor, op.132

The Composition

In an earlier post featuring a detailed comparison of numerous recordings I have given detailed explanations on the String Quartet No.15 in A minor, op.132 by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827), which I will not duplicate here. These are the movements in this work:

  1. Assai  sostenuto (2/2) — Allegro (4/4) — AdagioAllegro
  2. Allegro ma non tanto (3/4)
  3. Molto adagio (4/4). Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenden an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart — Andante (3/8). Neue Kraft fühlend — Molto adagio — Andante — Molto adagio — Mit innigster Empfindung
    (A Convalescent’s Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode … Feeling new forces … With the most intimate/intense sentiment)
  4. Alla Marcia, assai vivace (4/4) — Più allegro
  5. Allegro appassionato

The posting mentioned above not only has score samples and translations of the German annotations, but also explanations on the Lydian scale used in the third movement.

The Performance

The concert continued after a mere 4-minute tuning break, with Beethoven’s demanding A minor quartet: demanding primarily on the audience, as it turned out!

I. Assai  sostenuto — Allegro — Adagio — Allegro

Almost without vibrato in the “mystery beginning”, later again always very selective in vibrating: much appreciated! Again, the first violin dominated, but this has its foundation in the score: Beethoven clearly tailored this to the Schuppanzigh Quartet that premiered the work. In other words: the score reflects how much Ignaz Schuppanzigh (1776 – 1830) must have dominated his ensemble. The movement frequently alternates between Assai  sostenuto or Adagio parts and Allegro segments, in which the first violin has short cadenzas in semiquaver chains.

I found the playing in this movement to be very expressive—not through vibrato, luckily, but through vivid agogics and articulation. The cadenzas were so emotional in the agogic play that they reached the limits of clarity, especially in the acoustics of this venue. In my perception, Florian Donderer also used “expressive intonation”, such as deliberately narrow lead intervals. This certainly contributed to the liveliness of the interpretation. Those weren’t deficiencies: the artists clearly kept tight control on the intonation, which could be heard from the occasional duets in octave parallels, once cello and viola, then the two violins, which were perfectly in tune.

My only minor quibble: the transition from punctuated quaver motifs to the triplets at the beginning of the coda didn’t seem quite compelling.

A word on the acoustics: in the Beethoven quartet in particular, I felt that to some degree, the venue favored the violins, worked to the disadvantage of viola and cello. More reverberation in the high frequencies?

II. Allegro ma non tanto

This movement resembles a fast Menuetto with embedded Trio. I suspect Beethoven wanted to avoid the label Menuetto, while on the other hand, the movement lacks Scherzo character. In the “outer” (Menuetto-like) parts, I liked the swaying agogics, the harmonious phrasing, the vivid sound that did not aim to achieve cold, polished perfection.

The middle (Trio) part is lovely with its hurdy-gurdy segments, flowing, with fluent transitions. Prior to the second hurdy-gurdy segment, I didn’t quite understand why the ensemble accelerated in the unison minore bars. The transition to split time at the first “L’istesso tempo” was rhythmically correct. However, given that the second “L’istesso tempo” returns to the original meter and pace (hurdy-gurdy / musette), I fail to understand why such a distinct accelerando (not found in the score) is required.

III. Molto adagio — Andante — Molto adagio — Andante — Molto adagio — Mit innigster Empfindung

As the preceding ones, this long movement appeared with very limited vibrato (and mostly limited to the first violin). The quartet played in broad, long phrases, restrained in expression (Beethoven asks for sotto voce), but with very firm intonation. Despite the explicit German annotation, it is absolute music in the best sense of the word. It is calm, meditative in the Adagio, not difficult “on the ear”, but with the composer’s very deep emotions, very, very heartfelt. The difficulty here is in the long phrases, in the length of the movement: here, it lasted almost 21 minutes. There are recordings which only take 13 minutes!

In my personal opinion, the ensemble was excellent at keeping the tension throughout the piece. I thoroughly enjoyed their interpretation. However, I’m not sure everybody in the audience would agree with this: I suspect that the reverberation “flattened” the music, particularly in the more lively Andante parts, which perhaps required lighter, “airier” articulation (more staccato), maybe more accentuated dynamics. Perhaops the tempo was a little too slow for the general public, overall? I doubt that the Schuppanzigh Quartet would have been able to hold this pace!

As stated, I personally did not have a problem with the Signum Quartett’s approach. However, from how quickly some people left the church at the end of the performance (not waiting for the encore), I concluded that it was a challenge for some.

IV. Alla Marcia, assai vivace — Più allegro —

The Alla marcia movement, in contrast, is rather short, and “easy to capture”. I liked the moderate pace (the assai vivace leaves room for interpretation), the distinct accents which maintained the character of a “heavy) march. The second part of this short movement is a dramatic recitative, which seemed taken straight from the last movement of the Symphony No.9—very expressive in the solo on the first violin.

V. Allegro appassionato

The final movement (which follows attacca) does not appear to be extremely virtuosic. It nevertheless has its challenges, namely in the intonation, in the solo part, and in the octave parallels, as well as other parallel figures and the double-stop passages. And it has segments that are rhythmically very intricate. The ensemble played with very expressive articulation. Here, the first violin appeared more integrated in the overall ensemble sound than in most of the previous movement.

All in all, this last movement felt like the most challenging to the ensemble. The intonation appeared to have slightly degraded. This may not just be Beethoven’s tricky score, but possibly also detuning of the instruments (no re-tuning during the 50 minutes of this composition), perhaps also slight signs of fatigue on the part of the musicians? I should also say that the acoustics blurred the rhythmic contours of this movement, did not work to the benefit of the music here.


Encore

I noted a fairly strong applause, but also, that a fair number of listeners appeared to be in a hurry to leave the audience, which I found rather irritating (the artist deserved the applause, after all!). My conclusion was that they felt overstrained from the length of the slow movement. However, it can hardly have been so challenging as to cause people to rush away? Luckily, most members of the audience remained. Florian Donderer announced an encore: the Lied “Du bist die Ruh” (D.776) by Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828), arranged for string quartet by Xandi van Dijk (violist of the ensemble), if I understood that correctly.

As music in general, I found this an excellent fit & conclusion to the preceding program, namely the strong & deep emotions in the Beethoven quartet. In comparison to the original song, however, I found that the melody line often didn’t stand out enough from the accompaniment. Also, the dynamic contours appeared (too much) softened, if not blurred. And without the lyrics by Friedrlch Rückert (1788 – 1866), a key part of the Lied is of course missing. On the other hand, this instrumental version nicely highlighted the duet formed by the main melody and the top voice in the accompaniment in the last verses. It certainly remains one of Schubert’s most beautiful inventions!

Conclusion

I was very happy to see that the ensemble freed / distanced itself from the vibrato-rich tradition that their teachers adhered to, namely the Alban Berg Quartet and (even more so) the Melos Quartett Stuttgart. I definitely enjoyed this concert, not just because of the music, but also for the qualities of the Signum Quartett: an ensemble with a very high technical and musical standard. It is certainly worth keeping this quartet on the “watch list”, particularly for people who favor historically informed performances with little or no vibrato.


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