Viano String Quartet
Schumann / Dvořák

Kirche St.Peter, Zurich, 2021-10-10

4-star rating

2021-10-12 — Original posting (photos yet to be added)


Viano String Quartet (source: vianostringquartet.com)

Table of Contents


Introduction

Venue, Date & TimeKirche St.Peter in Zurich, 2021-10-10 17:00 (& 15:00)
Series / TitleNeue Konzertreihe Zürich, Streichquartette in der Kirche St.Peter
Wir machen Konzert (We Do Concerts)
OrganizerHochuli Konzert AG
Reviews from related eventsConcerts in this Series
Concerts at Kirche St.Peter, Zurich

The Artists

The Viano String Quartet took shape in 2015 at the Colburn Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles. It features the following members:

The ensemble gained international attention when they won the first prize at the 2019 Banff String Quartet Competition, ex aequo with the Marmen Quartet. For details on the ensemble’s biography please see their Website. There, one also finds an explanation for the origin of the ensemble’s name:

The name “Viano” was created to describe the four individual instruments in a string quartet interacting as one. Each of the four instruments begins with the letter “v”, and like a piano, all four string instruments together play both harmony and melody, creating a unified instrument called the “Viano”.

A peculiarity with this ensemble: the two violinists swap their positions for specific compositions. Only a minority of string quartet formations do this. Among the string quartets that I witnessed in concert, the Cuarteto Casals comes to mind. The Viano String Quartet did it in this concert, see below.

Instruments

  • Lucy Wang performs on a 1715 violin by Dominicus Montagnana (1686 – 1750), Venice
  • Hao Zhou performs on a 1783 violin by Giuseppe and Antonio Gagliano (active c.1770 – c.1800 and c.1780 – c.1800, respectively)
  • Tate Zawadiuk performs on a 1701 cello by David Tecchler (1666 – 1748), Germany

Program


Setting, etc.

This was the last one of the 2021 string quartet recitals in Zurich’s St.Peter church. The pandemic isn’t quite over yet. Therefore, that concert was just as special as the last one a month ago. For one, there were two (identical) performances (15:00 and 17:00) instead of just one. Also, the events were subject to COVID-19 security measures (in this case: the need for a COVID certificate). In addition, the entry was free (donations).

There were just over 50 listeners in the audience, most in the front part of the nave. I enjoyed the privilege of a seat at the balustrade of the organ balcony, so I could take photos.

Note: I will be away from my computer for a few days. I’m initially publishing this text without pictures. because I want to avoid excessively delaying my comments. I will process the photos, though, add them, and re-post the review as soon as possible, before 2021-10-22. I apologize for the inconvenience.


Concert & Review

For its Zurich recitals, the Viano String Quartet selected two romantic compositions. The first one by Robert Schumann is rarely performed on concert stages, and the second one by Antonín Dvořák is huge. Both these are technically and musically highly demanding.

Schumann: String Quartet No.3 in A major, op.41/3

The Work

Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) created close to 150 musical works. The year 1842 became known as his “chamber music year”. He focused on chamber music, starting with studies of works from the Vienna Classic period. Primarily, of course, the quartets works by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1828). However, he also studied quartets by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) and Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809). As an outcome from this, he wrote the three string quartets op.41:

The composition of these works took less than two months. The quartets op.41 remained his only contribution to the genre. All other chamber music works involve the piano. The quartet in A major features the following four movements:

  1. Andante espressivo – Allegro molto moderato
  2. Assai agitato — L’istesso tempo — Un poco Adagio — Tempo risoluto
  3. Adagio molto
  4. FinaleAllegro molto vivace – Quasi Trio

The Performance

A note on the ratings: I’m rating every movement individually, in addition to giving overall ratings per composition. This was my first encounter with the ensemble. Therefore, I started focusing mostly on technical performance aspects (coordination, precision, intonation, sound / acoustics). Further into the concert, musical aspects (style, atmosphere, coherence, transitions) received more attention. This may or may not explain the apparent inconsistency in the rating for the first two movements. Maybe I was overly critical initially?

As mentioned, the Viano String Quartet’s violinists may be switching position between compositions. They started in the configuration outlined above, with Lucy Wang at the first violin.

I. Andante espressivo – Allegro molto moderato

The Andante espressivo introduction appeared to indicate the composer’s mood. Not so much uncertain or fragile, but pondering, asking the big question of where to go. In the general rests (bars 2, 4, and 6), it felt as if the ensemble was taking a deep breath, before adding another question mark. A remarkable way of starting a composition — and a concert!

The real encounter with the ensemble came with the Allegro molto moderato. I experienced the performance as clean, subtle, harmonious, never aggressive. Not even in the f outbursts, where a modulation indicates the transition to the second theme. The quartet features excellent balance in dynamics and color, and a remarkably homogeneous sound.

One quibble: in the second theme, the accompaniment is in syncopated quavers, while the melody is “on the beat”. Here, particularly the first violin appeared to articulate the melody with swelling notes, as if she meant to play syncopes, too. Sadly, time did not permit repeating the exposition. To me, this always leaves a “structural deficit”.

One other, really minor point: it sounded as if the church acoustics were broadening the staccato quavers in the cello (and the viola?). A slightly shorter articulation might have helped? Strangely, I didn’t have the impression that the acoustics favor the cello as much as with other ensembles?
★★★½

II. Assai agitato — L’istesso tempo — Un poco Adagio — Tempo risoluto

The one little issue in the first part (Assai agitato) was that in the church acoustics, the punctuated quaver motifs sounded a bit “washed out”. However, the Viano String Quartet performed with verve, full of energy, with harmonious, rounded articulation.

The first part of the Un poco Adagio variation to me was bordering on “too romantic”, with its strong vibrato, and the strong portamento, especially with the first violin. Was this occasionally affecting the purity of the intonation? In the second half of that variation, I really enjoyed the beautiful, singing tone of the viola (not at all nasal!), later joined by similar singing from the cello, particularly on the d and a strings. Also the first violin fitted into the picture, of course. Its tone felt relatively mellow, never too incisive of pungent. I don’t exclude the second violin here—it’s just the only voice that remains in the background in this variation.

The Tempo risoluto variation then builds up emotions, up to an impressive, dramatic climax, after which the Coda allows the emotions to calm down. I was pleased to note that here, all repeats were observed.

I tried to characterize the ensemble’s playing after the first two movements. My notes mention “excellent control over dynamics”, and “expressive, rounded tone”. In general, I felt that to these musicians, expression prevails over aspects such as clarity and transparency.
★★★

III. Adagio molto

Yes, the vibrato in the slow movement was fairly prominent. However, I felt that it remained harmonious and never was too obtrusive, nor too nervous. Here, Aiden Kane’s viola (the most expressive voice in this movement) struck me with its astounding volume and sonority. In solos and as ensemble, the musicians focused on the evolving inner drama in this music. I was impressed by the unanimity, with which the quartet built long and harmonious dramatic arches. The musicians may not have been constantly observing each other—but for sure they were listening intensely at all times. That’s the only way to achieve unanimity.

Around the middle of the movement, Schumann’s composition turns “inwards”. The drama moves into background, in favor of warm and intense emotions. I particularly noted the heart-warming segment when the cello plays pizzicato, while viola and violins enter an intense dialogue. And this ending, so full of emotions, of love, burning love, almost moving to tears! In the silence that followed, one might have heard a needle dropping anywhere in the nave!
★★★★½

IV. Finale: Allegro molto vivace – Quasi Trio

A movement that challenges especially precision and coordination. The Viano String Quartet threw themselves into this with verve and energy. The coordination was excellent, even at the fast pace. And the semiquavers in the punctuations remained clear, despite the reverberation. It was amazing to watch how the quartet seemed to draw from vast reserves in energy and attention. They kept the tempo under control, didn’t allow it to run off, nor did they ever lose momentum.

The transition to the Quasi Trio in F major was seamless, natural and organic. And that middle part wasn’t offering much of a rest. Rather, the energy, the intensity rapidly built up again, up to the return of the first theme. Even in the initially playful C major segment, the musicians kept their momentum. They continued accumulate up energy and expression, even accelerated in the final build-up, enthralling up to the very end. Fascinating!

As virtuosic as this last movement is, I never had the impression of a polished show. And when the audience burst out into applause, this certainly was justified.
★★★★½

Ensemble Playing

None of the musicians in the Viano String Quartet appeared to dominate the scene. In fact, I was clueless in trying to get an idea of the ensemble’s “inner workings”, of their hierarchy. In fact, it felt amazing how much (after only 6 years as an ensemble!) the four musicians have internalized each other’s intent.

Lucy Wang was mostly playing (partly) towards the audience—she certainly did not appear to exert control over the others. Also Hao Zhou and Tate Zawadiuk (both in the rear, facing the audience) seemed to focus on their tablet, rather than seeking contact with a “leader”. Just Aiden Kane on the right was mostly facing the others (hard to observe)—but she may as well have kept her eyes on the tablet, too.

Of course, there were occasional visual contacts, e.g., for a new movement, or for the coordination of a critical passage. And when she had a longer solo / leading melody, Aiden Kane did turn around, to face the audience—and to help her instrument projecting into the audience. Not that her instrument really needed that help. However, it was of course nice to see her “face to face”, from time to time.

Overall Rating: ★★★★

Robert Schumann is one of the first names that come to mind when talking about Romantic Music. Yet, Schumann was also an intellectual, and could easily have made a career as a brilliant writer. I would state that the interpretation by the Viano String Quartet was devoid of romantic excesses. However, to me, it was not an analytic, let alone intellectual view. Rather, a display of romantic music—an excellent performance at that, well-balanced.


Dvořák: String Quartet No.13 in G major, op.106, B.192

The Work

1895, after his return from the United States, Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904) composed his String Quartet No.13 in G major, op.106, B.192. In accordance with the “official” quartet numbering, the composer started this work prior to his String Quartet No.14 in A♭ major, op.105, B.193. After completing the G major quartet (which premiered in October 1896), Dvořák resumed work on op.105. This became the quartet that he completed last. The string quartet op.106 features four movements:

  1. Allegro moderato (G major)
  2. Adagio ma non troppo (E♭ major)
  3. Molto vivace (B minor)
  4. Finale: Andante sostenuto — Allegro con fuoco

See also my report from an earlier concert performance of Dvořák’s op.106 in the same series, on 2018-10-28.

The Performance

For the Dvořák quartet, Lucy Wang and Hao Zhou swapped positions, with the latter now assuming the role of first violin. Interestingly, this didn’t seem to make much of a difference in the soundscape. But OK, this was my first encounter with the ensemble, and I was listening from the distance of the rear balcony…

I. Allegro moderato

Some ensembles often find a fragile autumn mood in Dvořák’s late works. Not so the Viano String Quartet. If there was fragility, it’s just in the p gestures in the very first bar. Then, with the first crescendo, the ensemble developped almost explosive dynamics. And an irresistible drive, verve, momentum. Sure, there were more subtle p moments, but then, the vigor, the drive resumed with the original strength. The musicians kept the tension throughout the movement, never allowing for a dead moment. Actually, in their interpretation, the piece felt almost monumental.

Was this a “Slavonic” interpretation? Maybe not, or not throughout. Sure, the ensemble’s vibrato (prominent, but still harmonious) seemed to fit Dvořák’s music. On the other hand, using excessive rubato—as often associated with late-romantic, Slavonic music—wasn’t on these artist’s minds. Rather, they focused on full, rounded, and harmonious sonority, verve and momentum.

If I were looking for the “hair in the soup”, then it would be with the intonation. No, it wasn’t “off”, let alone “bad”. It’s just that in rapid passages, and especially when the musicians got carried away, the ultimate intonation purity didn’t appear to be their primary focus. It could of course well be that towards the end of an intense afternoon with two concerts, these were subtle signs of exhaustion?
★★★★

II. Adagio ma non troppo

Such excellent control in dynamics, in how the Viano String Quartet shaped dynamic arches, from pp to ff and back again, as in the first bars! And: this undoubtedly was Dvořák! Be it only because that movement so strongly reminds of the Largo in the composer’s Symphony No.9 (E minor, op.95, B.178), “From the New World. With this, the question of “Slavonic or not” seemed superfluous here.

The intensity in the ff outbursts was remarkable. And there were these highly atmospheric moments, such as the exotic sound in the first Un pochettino piú mosso. There, the pizzicati in the second violin seemed to call into a mysterious void. At the same time, the singing from the first violin was so intense, urging! At the Tempo I, where the pizzicato moves into the cello, Hao Zhou’s violin singing now sounded so full of love, of intense longing, at the same time infinite joy—up to the sudden, almost scary collapse after the climax.

A New Start

The ensemble paused for a moment of reflection before resuming at [4] (bar 80). That new beginning in cello and viola was ppp, but the second violin’s intense playing on the g string rapidly drove this into a short period of utter turmoil. That lasted only moments, as the composer inserted a serene canon that appeared to ascent into heaven. Just until the emotions rose again in the cello, for more dynamic waves—a powerful soundscape, growing in dark intensity, up to a direct quote from the Symphony No.9 at Tempo I.

At [7] (tranquillo), the music returned to the beautiful, serene “Largo atmosphere” from “From the New World”. In the first violin’s singing on the g string, one is strongly reminded of the sound of the cor anglais. The composer’s “American reminiscences”?

The ensemble’s sound balance, the unanimity in their interpretation were truly impressive. Highly emotional and expressive, but never overdone.
★★★★½

III. Molto vivace

The verve, the coordination—excellent! Playing always “on the edge of the chair”. At [1], starting with the downfall in cello and viola, these two voices energetically appeared to push the ensemble into additional momentum and turmoil. I liked the “suspended rhythm” in the first part A♭ major segment.

This Scherzo-like movement is demanding in coordination and rhythmic precision. At [6], Dvořák inserts a Trio-like segment, Un poco meno mosso, entirely different in character. Here, the challenge is in the very exposed first violin voice, in extreme heights. Hao Zhou didn’t have issues “up in the eternal snow”—though I think that the vibrato was partly obscuring the intonation.
★★★★½

IV. Finale: Andante sostenuto — Allegro con fuoco

After the few bars of melancholic introduction (Andante sostenuto), the Allegro con fuoco forms a virtuosic, highly enthralling Finale. A true “last dance”, with Slavonic folk melodies. The Viano String Quartet appeared to focus on tension, suspense, drama—and on drive, on the continuity of the musical flow.

The tempo seemed fast, relentless, virtuosic. Except of course for the Andante sostenuto reminiscence at [5], and the chorale-like interjections that follow. After this, the composer appears to move into the conclusion, but again and again returns to slower episodes / reminiscences, up to the furious, whirling, if not overexcited final bars. Not just the quartet’s virtuosity justified the frenetic applause, but also its ability to achieve seamless transitions, and to maintain the tension, the musical flow in such a multi-faceted movement.
★★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★★½

Slavonic or not—it was definitely a highly impressive, enthralling performance. As stated above: the compelling performance, its coherence are all the more astounding, as the ensemble only exists for six years. Congrats to the artists!


Encore — Borodin: String Quartet No.2 in D major — III. Notturno

The ensemble sat down again for the encore—in the initial configuration, with Lucy Wang at the first violin. Hao Zhou announced the composition: the third movement, Notturno, from Borodin’s second string quartet:

The Work

The Russian (Georgian) composer, doctor and chemist Alexander Borodin (1833 – 1887) composed just two string quartets (plus one isolated movement). His String Quartet No.2 in D major is a creation from 1881. From the four movements of this composition, the Viano String Quartet selected the third one, Notturno, as encore. It’s an Andante (♩= 60) in 3/4 time. One of my early reviews (from a concert in Zurich, on 2016-01-19) featured a performance of the complete quartet composition.

The Notturno is maybe Borodin’s most popular work. It has seen a large variety of transcriptions, e.g., for piano, for various chamber music formation, for string orchestra, for solo instruments (or electronics!) and orchestra. The movement has also served as film music.

The Performance

The Viano String Quartet offered a warm, atmospheric performance, with beautiful singing in the melody voices. Here now, the first violin definitely had a tendency towards low pitches—at the end of such a long day, this was likely just a sign of fatigue.

The ensemble avoided excess romanticisms (extra rubato, glissandi, etc.). However, in the end, their performance could not hide that the movement with its countless repetitions of the same two melody elements is no match for the works that they performed beforehand. An earworm of sorts—at least when juxtaposed with masterworks by Schumann and Dvořák…


Author: Rolf Kyburz

If you have an opinion on this posting / page, please rate it (1 = dislike, 5 = best)

Average rating: / 5. Vote count:

Be the first to rate.

We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!

Let us improve this post!

Tell us how we can improve this post?


AboutImpressum, LegalSite Policy | TestimonialsAcknowledgementsBlog Timeline
Typography, ConventionsWordPress Setup | Resources, ToolsPictures, Methods

Leave a reply—comments are welcome!