Arcanto Quartet – Haydn

String Quartet in B minor, Op.64/2
String Quartet in D, Op.71/2
String Quartet in E flat, Op.50/3
String Quartet in C, Op.74/1

Arcanto Quartet [Antje Weithaas & Daniel Sepec (violins), Tabea Zimmermann (viola) & Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello)]

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 6 November, 2008
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Arcanto QuartetGiven as part of Wigmore Hall’s ongoing exploration of all Haydn’s mature string quartets designed to mark the 200th-anniversary of Haydn’s death (in 2009), this was a fabulous concert. Great individual players do not always make great chamber music ensembles, although there have been notable exceptions: think of the Stern-Rose-Istomin trio. Sometimes individual egos can unbalance such ensembles. However the Arcanto Quartet is that rare beast, an ensemble including three absolutely top-flight soloists who not only make music with a rare sense of joy but also are transparently happy to subsume their individuality in the interests of the whole. Marry the musicians’ deftness, wit and polish to four of Haydn’s finest string quartets and you have a recipe for a musical feast.

The evening opened with Opus 64/Number 2, part of a set which Haydn brought to London for his first visit in 1791 (Opuses 71 and 74 were also written with London in mind). The opening movement was launched with an easy grace by Antje Weithaas’s silver-toned violin, accents perfectly placed to keep the music airborne and with Tabea Zimmermann’s viola unobtrusively present in the texture. Both here and in the Presto finale the music’s many pauses were judged to a tee whilst there was an exceptional rich-toned poise to the Adagio. In all four movements there was also an uncanny ability to hit just the right tempo to allow the music’s essential character to emerge – dignified and gravely beautiful in Adagio, lilting and pussy-footing in the Minuet and slyly characterful in the finale.

Opus 71/Number 2 had all the same virtues plus an almost orchestral blend and amplitude surprising in a group who are comparatively restrained in their use of vibrato. In both the central movements there was an almost Beethovenian vigour, the Minuet (marked Allegro) here having the feel of an early Beethoven scherzo. Especially in the last two movements there is a wonderful unpredictability to Haydn’s invention, with a trick ending to the Minuet and a comically deadpan opening to the finale culminating in a joyously exuberant explosion of wit and energy.

If anyone were tempted to think that four Haydn string quartets nose to tail might be just too much of a good thing, think again. The juxtaposition of Opus 50/Number 3 – light-fingered, constantly teasing in its slightly archaic Andante and with an almost Ländler quality to the Minuet – with Opus 74/Number 1, one of the grandest and most exploratory of Haydn’s quartets, provided all the contrast one could have wished for, especially in this performance. Only in the opening movement of Opus 74, marked Allegro moderato, did one feel that a slightly more relaxed tempo might have benefited the music. However the Andantino with its extraordinary modulations at the close was almost an operatic scena unfolding before our eyes whilst the Vivace finale, opening sotto voce and with its drone, exploded with an almost motoric power and a joyous, bucolic wit.

If the Wigmore Hall’s Haydn series continues on this exalted level, it will be riches indeed.

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