Alban Berg Quartet

The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross – Introduction
Lyric Suite
String Quartet in G, D887

Alban Berg Quartet [Günther Pichler & Gerhard Schulz (violins), Isabel Charisius (viola) & Valentin Erben (cello)]

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 14 February, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Alban Berg QuartetThe Alban Berg Quartet has long had a reputation for playing ‘difficult’ music and emotional detachment. Over the last decade though, some live performances have been rather more emotionally involved. Whenever I have heard these musicians, the prospect of them returning to expressive sterility has always hovered in the background. Here, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall they offered a Viennese programme spanning 150 years.

The Introduction to Haydn’s Seven Last Words was exact and clean. Period! The only distinctive thing was the leader’s somewhat dubious intonation. Which brought us to one of this ensemble’s signature pieces, Berg’s Lyric Suite. Here the same clarity of style was evident. Everything was beautifully balanced and both ensemble and intonation were well-nigh-perfect. In the Allegretto there was a sense of conversation, but it needed to be more animated. The following Andante amoroso was devoid of sensuality, as was the Adagio appassionato. In the fifth movement the tempo was too slow and the Hungarian rhythms underplayed.

After the interval we had Schubert’s great G major Quartet, a work that I had heard the Belcea Quartet perform at the Wigmore Hall only two nights before. From the opening bars everything was once again clean and spare and Günther Pichler even went so far as to use portamento. But nothing so overtly expressive was then allowed. Throughout the movement everything was balanced and the dynamic range was extended and subtle. Unfortunately there was also a complete lack of drama in the development and the constant feeling that sound rather than emotion drove the music-making. Much the same could be said of the slow movement. The cello’s heart-rending song was reduced to a series of notes and the only hint of feeling came when the first violin and cello enter into a duet after the extended return of the first section.

Silky would be the best description of the scherzo, with superbly judged forte outbursts. Unfortunately the trio was devoid of atmosphere – sonic perfection ruled supreme again. The finale was bad! There was no sense of dance and no true attack: uninvolved and boring. There was an encore, the slow movement of Haydn’s ‘Sunrise’ Quartet, which was cool and reserved.

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