Edinburgh International Festival – Ysaÿe Quartet

Haydn
String Quartet in D, Op.76/5
Bartók
String Quartet No.6
Beethoven
String Quartet in A minor, Op.132

Ysaÿe Quartet [Guillaume Sutre & Luc-Marie Aguera (violins), Miguel da Silva (viola) & Yovan Markovitch (cello)]


Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 30 August, 2007
Venue: Queen's Hall, Edinburgh

The Ysaÿe QuartetReplacing the indisposed Gidon Kremer and his Kremeratini Quartet, the long-established Paris-based Ysaÿe Quartet stepped in at short notice for this morning recital and seized the opportunity to offer a high-fibre programme including two of the toughest nuts in the quartet repertoire. Nobody could accuse these musicians of taking the easy option.

For the most part, this was a distinguished if rather sober affair. The Ysaÿe is polished, metropolitan and don’t really do humour. Perhaps for this reason the opening Haydn was less than wholly satisfactory. Whilst there were notable individual contributions (the viola solo in the first movement) and wonderful collective moments (the finely poised end to the slow movement), too often it was all a little precious, Haydn glimpsed as if he were from the formal gardens of Versailles rather than amidst the wilds of Esterházy. There was certainly little of the earthy countryman here.

Bartók’s music shares deep Hungarian roots with (the Austrian) Haydn but unlike his great predecessor there is a sustained melancholy to his final string quartet, a thousand miles away from Haydn’s bluff and rubicund jollity. This is hardly surprising since the work was written on the eve of the Second World War after Bartók had left Hungary and Hitler and Stalin were signing their Non-Aggression pact. It opens and closes with an extended viola solo, eloquently played here by Miguel da Silva; all too often thereafter though the Ysaÿe blunted the music’s rough edges – beauty of sound is not a premium in this music and a strong streak of violence often lurks just beneath the surface. One was torn between admiration for the musicians’ sheer proficiency in such demanding music and a craving to hear them live more dangerously, making more of the micro-inflections of the ‘Burletta’ and placing less emphasis on control. Interestingly, the violist and cellist were more generous emotionally and their outburst at the end of the ‘Marcia’ second movement injected a necessary dose of adrenaline into proceedings, reminding that this work is a Life and Death experience.

Beethoven’s late A minor Quartet is of course profoundly serious music – at its core the so-called ‘Heiliger Dankgesang’, a thanksgiving for Beethoven’s recovery from serious illness in 1815, lasts nearly 20 minutes and contains some of the most elevated music ever written. Here the Ysaÿe was on something like home territory giving music-making of deep concentration and focus, whilst the ‘March’ and lively finale which follow the slow movement found the musicians at their most vividly animated.

However, taken as a whole the reading was something of a curate’s egg since the quartet had seemed distinctly reluctant to confront the first movement’s abrupt contrasts or to allow the trio of the scherzo – an ecstatic melody floating above a drone bass – its sense of unfettered joy. When one considers what a wild card Beethoven actually was, despite the undoubted polish of the playing it all seemed a little too respectful and professorial.



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