International Chamber Music Season – 13th December

Photograph of the Ysaÿe Quartet

String Quartets –
G, K387
D minor, K421
E flat, K428

Ysaÿe Quartet
[Guillaume Sutre & Luc-Marie Aguera (violins); Miguel da Silva (viola) and François Salque (cello)]

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 13 December, 2001
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Mozart’s six ’Haydn’ Quartets, his practical and aesthetic response to Haydn’s Op.33 set, initiated a compositional trajectory that continued unbroken for over 150 years. Central to the repertoire, they embody a transition from the absorption of Haydn’s quartet writing to its deployment in a manner quintessentially Mozartian. This does not make the earlier ones in the series at all derivative or eclectic, and a fascinating aspect of hearing the first three quartets in sequence is the way in which Mozart refashions, in the process of emulating, the precedent laid down by the older master.

K387 balances a Haydnesque contrapuntal density and motivic economy with a harmonic richness that is Mozart’s alone. The Ysaÿe Quartet got this balance exact in the ruminative opening movement, while the thematic elaboration of the ’Menuetto’ had a muscularity that was almost Beethovenian. The focus on melodic subtlety in the ’Andante’ is the nearest thing to relaxation in this work, and the intricate fugal tracery of the finale effortlessly conflates its emotional apex with the completion of its musical process. Searching and understated, this was undoubtedly a performance ’from the heart’.

If the remaining two quartets didn’t quite attain this technical and expressive unity, there was no doubting the Ysaÿe’s insights. Concerning K421, the tense drama of the ’Allegro’ was a little too flaccid to make the required contrast with the pathos of the ’Andante’, and though the harmonic austerity of the ’Menuetto’ was powerfully wrought, the ’trio’ seemed unsettled rhythmically. The variations comprising the finale had a strong forward momentum, leading to a coda that makes essential the theme and the movement’s harmonic and tonal outline with uncanny consistency.

K428 is perhaps the least remarked upon of the set, though the marrying of Haydn’s formal clarity and wit with Mozart’s expressive poise is surely at its peak. The Ysaÿe’s could have given a touch more emphasis to the opening movement’s unsettling chromatic motto that underlies its ensuing urbanity. The harmonic and rhythmic inflections of the ’Andante’ were perfectly judged, with the ’rustic’ elements of the ’Menuetto’ given very French refinement. The finale’s genial humour, elegantly caught here, prepares for the truly Mozartian discourse of the remaining three ’Haydn’ quartets.

Indeed, it is much-hoped that the Ysaÿe’s will return to theSouth Bank to round off the traversal which, owing to the Hagen Quartet’s unavailability, they have unexpectedly commenced. Few current outfits can match their equanimity of ensemble or tonal finesse, while the fastidious interplay of Luc-Marie Aguera and Miguel da Silva in the crucial inner parts was a constant pleasure. Under-projected? Occasionally, but this was a small price to pay for quartet-playing of a naturalness andunselfconsciousness rarely encountered in recital today.

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