Ehnes Quartet at Wigmore Hall – Beethoven, Suk and Bartók

String Quartet in E flat, Op.74 (Harp)
Meditation on an old Bohemian Chorale (St Wenceslas), Op.35a
String Quartet No.3

Ehnes Quartet [James Ehnes & Amy Schwartz Moretti (violins), Richard O’Neill (viola) & Robert deMaine (cello)]

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 10 February, 2014
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Ehnes Quartet © Ehnes QuartetThe String Quartet bearing the name of James Ehnes was established in 2010, an official label for a togetherness of musical friendships that go back 20 years. The ensemble opened this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert at Wigmore Hall with an ebullient account of Beethoven’s ‘Harp’ Quartet, its first movement notable for its Haydnesque humour and lightness of touch. There was relatively little darkness in the introduction and a very open sound once the Allegro was underway. The pizzicatos giving the work its nickname passed between the instruments effortlessly and as the development progressed so the performance attained considerable vigour. This was also evident in the scherzo, which scurried along, its trio even quicker, with an outpouring of notes on the cello that bordered on the reckless – but nonetheless successfully captured the spontaneity of Beethoven’s invention and segued into a stately finale, graceful yet high spirited. Time for lyrical reflection had been found in the preceding Adagio, with sweet-toned melodies and an aching minor-key section.

The inclusion of a relative rarity from Josef Suk (1874-1935, father of the violinist) was welcome. The Meditation on an old Bohemian Chorale has been compared to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, for it has a similar emotional pull without – in the right performance – overdoing things. The Ehnes musicians gave a thoughtful account, revealing Suk’s pain and anguish at the onset of the First World War. The muted theme was led by Richard O’Neill’s mellow but rather mournful viola, while an extended period of clouded reflection towards the end gave way to sunlight.

There followed a technically impressive performance of Bartók’s one-movement Third String Quartet, superbly brought off, the all-important rhythms and syncopations executed with precision, with fluctuations of pace natural and logical, the dance rhythms swayed persuasively, and the tunes placed above preserving rusticity. The insect-like figurations of the night-time music were fascinating, and the furtive scrapes of bows near bridges were carefully effective. The swirling figurations as the piece approached its end had complete unity.

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