Franck
String Quartet in D
Beethoven
String Quartet No.13 in B flat, Op.130 (including Grosse Fuge, Op.133)

Ysaÿe Quartet
[Guillaume Sutre & Luc-Marie Aguera (violins), Miguel da Silva (viola), François Salque (cello)]
The Beethoven lineage has understandably been seen as a primarily Austro-German phenomenon. Yet the process of cyclical transformation evident in his late works, the quartets in particular, is one that César Franck was to make very much his own in the instrumental works of his last decade – above all in the solitary string quartet from 1889 which constitutes perhaps his greatest achievement.
Playing for fifty minutes, the scale is late-Beethovenian too. A tough challenge for any ensemble, and one for which the Ysaÿe Quartet – whose recital of Mozart’s first three ’Haydn’ Quartets proved so impressive at the South Bank last December – might not have been an obvious contender. In the event, this was a performance that reconciled form and expression to a persuasive degree.
The first movement’s ’Poco lento’ opening, with its motto implications for the remainder of the work, was delivered with ideal flexibility – and if the ’Allegro’ portions which give the movement a sonata-like dynamism were not quite trenchant enough, the integration across and beyond the movement was still palpable. The ’Scherzo’, formally straightforward if concealing a myriad of motivic references, was poised between the animated and the amiable.
The core of the work is the ’Larghetto’ – in its allusiveness and rapt intensity a parallel ’confession’ to the ’Adagio’ of Bruckner Nine – and the Ysaÿe did not disappoint; Guillaume Sutre excelled in the ecstatic central section. The formal ramifications of the ’Finale’ are complex even by late-Romantic standards: if the heightened return of the motto theme marginally failed to crown the work as it might, the sense of a journey experienced ’in toto’ was never in doubt.
Only a late Beethoven quartet would do after this, and the Ysaÿe obliged with the most expansive of the five. Even with the Grosse Fuge, the original ’Finale’, the B flat quartet plays for several minutes less than the Franck; however, its density and variety of incident still make it a supreme challenge. If tempo contrasts in the opening movement could have been more strongly delineated, the coda saw them unerringly reconciled. The almost Schoenbergian harmonic ellipses of the third movement were tellingly brought out, and, if the ’Cavatina’ can yield greater depth, emotional clarity was not lacking. The Ysaÿe had the measure of the Great Fugue – tenacious without becoming frenetic, and with the wilful fragmentation of motion in its later stages artfully concealed, although the closing bars could have been delivered with greater decisiveness.
Even the thought of an encore seemed absurd, but the choice was inspired. ’Contrapunctus I’ from Bach’s The Art of Fugue – in its formal inevitability and expressive focus, the nucleus from which works such as those heard tonight would in time emerge.

 

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