Edinburgh International Festival – Michelangelo Quartet

String Quartet in G, K387
String Quartet in G, Op.77/1
String Quintet in C, D956

Michelangelo Quartet [Mihaela Martin & Stephan Picard (violins), Nobuko Imai (viola) & Frans Helmerson (cello)]

Ralph Kirshbaum (cello)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 26 August, 2005
Venue: The Queen's Hall, Edinburgh

Take four musicians and make a string quartet. Or try to. It didn’t work on this occasion, which wasn’t a one-off assignation – the Michelangelo Quartet was formed in 2002 and has undertaken several tours. Of the foursome, Nobuko Imai and Frans Helmerson are the best known; they made the most distinguished contributions here, she with politic discretion and he as a firm foundation. However, Imai wasn’t audible enough, and was disadvantaged by sitting outside-right, although everything she did was innate; and Helmerson supported like a guardian with a watchful eye on the violinists, of whom Stephan Picard was too much the ‘second fiddle’ and Mihaela Martin was often too dominant, without the musical insight to warrant it, and who was also technically challenged.

The group might like to consider the seating plan of (from left to right) first violin, cello, viola, second violin. Maybe Picard would then develop some much-needed assertion and independence, and the genteel Imai would project outwards to advantage. She gave great musical pleasure, so too did Helmerson. But two musicians do not a quartet make: Martin’s intonation and suspect means, and Picard’s anonymity, compromised all three works, and Martin’s thin tone in the highest register also disappointed.

Unequal musicianship, poor balances, and technical flaws combined for what became a dispiriting morning concert. The Mozart is an urbane piece and it palled early on due to the musicians’ generalised and inconsistent response, and their lack of enquiry undervalued the greater imagination of Haydn’s ‘late’ masterpiece.

The Schubert became interminable despite the cellists’ best efforts. Ralph Kirshbaum, sitting in the middle of the ensemble, and taking the second-cello part, raised the stakes with a depth of sound and an emotional engagement that Helmerson alone latched on to; this performance was dedicated to Eleanor Warren who had died the day before. But this is music for five musicians! And while this large-scale, spacious, very traditional account had its moments, and was further swelled by all repeats being observed (phew!), the inequalities already cited remained present. During a foursquare account of the finale, a mobile-phone rung for several seconds; such intrusion should have been irritating, but it didn’t seem to matter.

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