2018-09-11 — Original posting
St.Peter, Zurich, 2018-09-09
Mozart / Schubert / Schumann
- Xiaoming Wang, violin (China)
- Sebastian Bohren, violin (Switzerland)
- Lech Antonio Uszynski, viola (Poland)
- Maja Weber, cello (Switzerland)
Of these, only the cellist, Maja Weber, remains of the original configuration. The name of the ensemble was chosen because initially, the ensemble performed on four instruments by Antonio Stradivari (1644 – 1737), which were lent to the artists by a foundation (the Swiss Stradivari Foundation Habisreutinger). That loan was / is a temporary one, and so, in the fall of 2017, two of the instruments moved on to other artists. The current set of instruments is as follows:
- Xiaoming Wang: 1715 Stradivari violin “Aurea”
- Sebastian Bohren: 1761 violin “Ex-Wannamaker Hart” by Giovanni Battista Guadagnini (1711 – 1786). This instrument was formerly owned and played by the late Swiss violinist Thomas Füri (1947 – 2017)
- Lech Antonio Uszynski: 1690 viola from the workshop of Hendrick Willems (Ghent, ca. 1630 – 1700)
- Maja Weber: 1717 Stradivari cello „Bonamy Dobree-Suggia“
The Program, the Venue
- Mozart: String Quartet No.21 in D major, K.575, “Prussian”
- Schubert: String Quartet Movement (Quartettsatz) in C minor, D.103 (1814)
- Schumann: String Quartet No.1 in A minor, op.41/1
Venue and Appearance
The concert sold very well: the seats in the nave (excluding the balconies) were pretty much filled. The venue obviously is still a church, and as such has a fair amount of reverberation: not in the form of distinct echoes, but it does blur the sound to some degree. One may see this as disadvantage, however, it can also help a performance by providing an “acoustic envelope” that is not available in “technical”, dry acoustic settings.
The other relevant aspect is in the visibility: the quartet was performing on a low-level podium, and as the church floor is flat, most seats offer limited view onto the musicians. At least, most will have seen all artists from the shoulders up. My personal seat was on the right side in the first row of the rear-central seat block, roughly under the rim of the rear (organ) balcony, acoustically excellent, and giving a good impression on how the majority of the people in the audience heard the music.
The quartet was sitting in a narrow semi-circle (violins, viola, cello), the music stands (sheet music, not tablet computers) as close to each other as possible. “Semi-circle” is an approximation: for one, Maja Weber’s cello takes up more space than the other instruments, so she sat a bit farther away from the stand. With this, one could also describe the arrangement as “violins and viola forming a quarter-circle around the cello”.
The spatial arrangement of the quartet leads to question of interactions between the musicians. One could trivialize the question into “Who is the boss?”. Naturally, the four artists—not too far apart, age-wise—act as a team, with complex interactions. Musically, the roles are not equal, though: in most compositions for this genre, the first violin has a lead role, often (especially in the Mozart quartet, see below) counter-balanced by the cello. Here, one could certainly see that Xiaoming Wang was holding that (inherent) lead. As musician and as personality, he did not seem to interact with the others nearly as much as the others while playing.
Then, there is the question of (musical and maybe personal) seniority or prevalence. Here, I felt that Maja Weber, as founder and only founding member, appeared to take a “second lead role”, in that she was strongly interacting with Sebastian Bohren and Lech Antonio Uszynski, keeping eye contact, interacting with mimics and gestures. This could be because of her seniority with the ensemble. However, it could in parts also be based on her open, communicative personality. This by no means implies that Bohren and Uszynski were merely passive recipients: both filled very active roles, but independent of their musical roles, both were more focusing on interaction, mutual communication than the two musicians at the front.
Before discussing the interpretation of the works in this program, let me spend a few words on the sound of the ensemble, as this pertains to the performance of all works.
The name “Stradivari Quartett” is now only partially justified (see above). Still, one of the most prominent—and most fascinating—aspects about the ensemble is in the homogeneity of the sound. The instruments are all similar in age, and I’m sure that a careful, conscious selection of strings was instrumental in achieving that homogeneity. All four musicians played on modern Tourte bows. And of course, they have mutually adjusted, coordinated their articulation, the amount and type of vibrato, etc. Quite frequently, the two violins (Stradivari and Guadagnini) sounded absolutely identical (requiring visual checking who was actually playing). Also the 1690 viola proved an excellent match to the 1717 Stradivari cello.
Not only in their sound quality, the instruments were matching, but also dynamically, in their volume;: the overall balance within the ensemble was excellent. As for the sound characteristics: I would describe the violin sound as bright, but never shrill or incisive in any way. The viola often exhibited a wonderfully dark, full sound. That seemed to be in accordance with its distinctly large, dark-lacquered body. The cello had plenty of opportunity to demonstrate its singing, well-balanced sound across the tonal range (not as dark and full-bodied as a typical Goffriller instrument, maybe, but all the more an excellent match within the ensemble).
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) published as many as 23 string quartets. the last three of these were dedicated to the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II, an amateur cellist. The String Quartet No.21 in D major, K.575, from 1789, is the first of these late works, hence known as “Prussian Quartets” (K.575, K.589, K.590). In the Anglo-Saxon world, this particular work has also acquired the nickname “The Violet”. It features the usual four movements:
- Menuetto: Allegretto — Trio
Already the violin cantilena in the first bars made it clear that this would not be a revolutionary interpretation. This was confirmed throughout the concert. The vibrato was fairly prominent. Not overly heavy, but almost ubiquitous (except for fast passages, obviously). And it was stronger than with other, recent ensembles, let alone quartets that work towards historically informed performances (HIP). Conventional performances are not going to disappear any time soon, and they certainly still have their audiences.
The “conventional aspect” does not mean to devalue the performance. Though I must confess that I personally am not in favor of “vibrato sauce everywhere”. There is the aspect of “conventional audiences”, of course: the vibrato does attenuate harmonic frictions, dissonances, and in general, it makes up for a well-rounded, harmonious soundscape. However, harmonic frictions are typically intended by the composers, and so, the music may sound more harmless than it was intended in the composer’s mind.
In line with this: the ensemble playing, the soundscape was harmonious, the articulation not exceedingly light, the dominance of the first violin lies in Mozart’s composition. Thanks for repeating the exposition: well-appreciated! I liked the natural tempo. In the development part, I noted a few mishaps / inaccuracies in the intonation, and there were moments where I felt that the vibrato also affected the intonation clarity.
Calm serenity—harmonious and well-tuned in articulation (fairly broad, close to legato) and dynamics (maybe that the initial sotto voce could have been a tad more distinct?). Also here: a natural tempo, allowing the cantilenas (violin 1 and cello) to flourish. In the second half, there are passages that highlighted the excellent accord in the sound between cello and viola.
III. Menuetto: Allegretto — Trio
Light in the Menuetto, but not over-pointed in the staccato, agile in the sforzati. The latter were distinct, but never harsh or abrupt. I do suspect, though, that the church acoustics dampened, equalized dynamic extremes. In the second part, I noted the excellent, seamless transitions of the motifs between the voices.
In the Trio, the cello seemed to adopt the color of the viola in the cantilena in the high register.
This movement indicates how Mozart made sure that the cello, i.e., the part of the dedicatee (the King of Prussia) received the appropriate attention. The performance here was fluent, lively. Also here, the seamless transition of motifs and melodies between the voices, and the excellent balance gave testimony of the ensemble’s experience and proficiency. Occasionally, I wished for a more distinct agogics, and the quaver triplet chains were occasionally bordering on being a tad superficial.
Overall, as stated: not a revolutionary approach, rather one that avoids any extremes.
Schubert as String Quartet Composer
In the oeuvre of Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828), string quartets play a role that is almost as central as it was for Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn. However, the stream of inspiration was so intense in Schubert’s mind that he tackled more than he could possibly complete. It was for this reason that the bulk of his output as composer was in the form of Lieder—typically short, concise, closed in themselves. A string quartet or a symphony (as also other genres) are more challenging, as they require multiple movements, i.e., multiple, major structural units to be combined into one work.
In the case of his famous String Quartet No.12 in C minor, D.703 (a.k.a. “Quartettsatz”, 1820), he completed a movement in sonata form, Allegro assai, and he left a fragment (40 bars) of a second movement (Andante — Allegro assai). In that fragment, he must have realized that he wasn’t “getting anywhere” with that idea, and it seems that he didn’t have any compelling idea on how to continue, so he simply abandoned the project.
The program, though, featured the “other”, less known “Quartettsatz” (quartet movement), also in C minor, but D.103, composed 1814. Its case is different, in that it really stands alone, in the form that we have today. There are people who claim that it belongs to a complete quartet that is now lost. Fact is: the manuscript that we have for this movement isn’t complete, and there are apparently no signs of any subsequent movements. The existing fragment lacks parts of the recapitulation and the coda. 1939, Alfred Orel published a reconstruction of the full movement. The tempo annotations are Grave (introduction) — Allegro.
The introduction appears to depict loneliness, forlornness, maybe. Here, for a change, the vibrato was far less conspicuous. The first notes even had (almost) none at all. The artists nicely built up tension and expectation towards the Allegro part. They used vibrato almost just as ornament, for highlighting key notes, left dissonances unmitigated. One could see this as an expression of the dark mood that the composer probably wanted to convey. Alternatively, it could be an indication for the unfinished state of the work?
The first violin has a more prominent role than in the Mozart quartet, still, it did not dominate the performance.
To me, the experience of this performance was a strong indication for the unfinished state of the movement, leaving no doubt that the composer stopped working on this because “the concept didn’t work out”. I don’t imply that it’s necessarily a bad composition from beginning to end (actually, I do like the introduction), but at least in this performance, the ruptures in the (compositorial / thematic) flow, the composer’s effort to seek a continuation, the incoherence in the thematic development. It’s as if there were “holes” in the composition. I may not be doing justice to the work. However, I certainly felt that the movement is sketchy, has severe ruptures.
To me, this was the best part of the quartet’s performance so far, as it appeared to give valuable insight into the composer’s creative process, did not try mitigating the raw state of the movement. My only quibble once more is with the vibrato, especially with the first violin.
Schumann: String Quartet No.1 in A minor, op.41/1
Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) had been studying string quartets of Vienna Classical composers, such as Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. It wasn’t before 1842 until he seriously considered writing his own works in this genre. He did start that year, but at the same time was fighting a depression, which caused an interruption of several months. He did, however, finish three quartets within less than three weeks in summer that year. These quartets (all published as his op.41) remained Schumann’s only contribution to the genre. The String Quartet No.1 in A minor, op.41/1 features the following four movements:
- Andante espressivo — Allegro
- Scherzo: Presto — Intermezzo — Tempo I
- Allegro — Moderato — Tempo I
I. Andante espressivo — Allegro
Here again, sadly, the vibrato was often too intrusive: it affected the clarity of intonation, and at the same time, it mitigated dissonances, the aspects of pain, of despair. Like Schubert’s fragment above, this music has ruptures—though here, they are a clear expression of the composer’s state of mind (he was suffering a depression). I personally prefer these signs of irritation to be “visible”: dynamic and harmonic harshness should not be mitigated. I don’t imply that the ensemble smoothed out all rough edges: the interjections with the sf chords were indeed setting some strong accents. Other dynamic contrasts were occasionally attenuated, e.g., some of the sforzati in the development part. The latter also had occasional (minor) impurities in the intonation.
II. Scherzo: Presto — Intermezzo — Tempo I
A lively, virtuosic performance, in a sporty, challenging tempo: the coordination was very good. I liked those short ritenuti in the first violin, in the middle of the second repeated segment.
I was pleased to note that with the exception of the top voice, the vibrato in the Intermezzo was restricted.
Ah—the vibrato! Much too strong! To me, this is no longer espressivo. It rather kills the expression, and it often affected the intonation, obscured the harmonies. On the bright side: I did like the hold-up at the general rest (prior to the second theme, arco & crescendo), and the strong, dissonant sf exclamations that follow. Also, the articulation, the agogics in the semiquaver bars were diligent, careful, “talking”, particularly in the last bars.
IV. Allegro — Moderato — Tempo I
A very challenging tempo. It was at a point where clarity and precision occasionally were starting to suffer, especially in the acoustics of this venue. Also the articulation of some of the quaver figures was marginal. On top of that, and despite the already sporty pace, there was an occasional tendency to accelerate, to push the tempo, unnecessarily. Still, overall, the ensemble exhibited excellent ensemble playing.
I liked the atmosphere in the Moderato segment: an unexpected Musette or hurdy-gurdy imitation (a Beethoven reminiscence, for sure!) in the first part, and then 22 bars of a mysterious, retained pp transition back to the Tempo I, the Coda.
Encore 1 — Piazzolla: “Plus ultra”
The sporty, virtuosic performance, especially in the last Schumann movement, called for a strong applause. The artists offered three encores (in rapid succession). The first one was “Plus ultra” by Astor Piazzolla (1921 – 1992), a jazzy Tango, full of syncopes and melancholic melodies, with glissandi and other ingredients so typical of this music. Here, the ensemble suddenly seemed to liven up, as if this piece now freed the flow of emotions…
Encore 2 — Piazzolla: Libertango
The second encore was the popular Libertango, also by Astor Piazzolla. It’s a composition that the quartet has been performing as encore for several years already. Popular music that can’t fail with the audience! Though: was this the right ending after Schumann’s quartet?
Encore 3 — “Chinese Galopp”
Also the last piece is from the ensemble’s standing repertoire: videos confirm that they have been giving this as encore for several years. It’s nice, even enthralling music with a gag at the end. The first violin imitates an Erhu or other Chinese folk string instrument.
Sure, each of these are good music, full of swing, drive, etc.—however: it obscures the memory of the preceding performances. In parts, it annihilates the impressions from especially the Schumann quartet. Furthermore, it leaves a shallow aftertaste if an ensemble sticks to the same set of encores, year after year. The quartet has recently presented recordings with all Schumann Quartets, as well as one with all three of Mozart’s Prussian Quartets. Aren’t there any short movements in these compositions that are (better) suited as encores after a concert like this one?