String Quartet in G, Op.18/2
String Quartet No.3 in F, Op.73
Michelangelo String Quartet [Mihaela Martin & Stephan Picard (violins), Nobuko Imai (viola) & Frans Helmerson (cello)]
Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood
Reviewed: 9 October, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
The Michelangelo Quartet, whose members have been together for nearly five years, is finally on the verge of committing itself to disc with cycles of Beethoven and Shostakovich for Pan Classics. On the evidence of this lunchtime recital, those projects will be well worth seeking out.
Shostakovich’s Third Quartet begins in a convivial atmosphere but ends unmistakeably charred by suffering and war. In the hands of the Michelangelo Quaret this transformation was striking, all the more so as the relatively carefree opening evoked the contemporaneous Ninth Symphony. The development section of the first movement cast a cloud with its increasingly frenzied figurations, but the ending restored tranquillity, cast off perfectly by Mihaela Martin’s closing phrase.
The unusual five movement design includes two scherzos, the first described by the composer as “rumblings of unrest and anticipation”. Nobuko Imai’s leaden viola motif brought reminders of the Eighth Symphony, while the section of ghostly chords that followed were truly disquieting. The quasi-orchestral second scherzo cut deeply, a “dance of death” with Imai again taking the lead over her colleagues’ sardonic pizzicatos.
After this brutal music the subsidence of the Adagio was well judged, as was the chromatic uncertainty of the finale, with the bridge between the two a fragile duet between Imai and the attentive Frans Helmerson. The coda was ice-cold, with Martin’s piercing violin reaching ever higher at the close.
This offered a complete contrast with the opening work, a warm-hearted performance of Beethoven’s second published quartet, which found the Michelangelo keen to emphasise the harmonic daring that the composer’s wit allowed. The impact of an unexpected ‘scherzo’ passage in the slow movement was dramatised, the contrast between languid slow music (a little suave) and the nimble Allegro fully emphasised.
A finely balanced Minuet was characterised by excellent dialogue in its question and answer subjects, while Helmerson’s understated cello was the springboard for the exuberant finale, again bringing the composer’s wit to the fore. As Misha Donat’s programme note observed, such writing caused consternation to Beethoven’s contemporaries. Little did they know what lay in store for them!