String Quartet in B flat, K589
String Quartet in A minor, Op.132
Vermeer Quartet [Shmuel Askenazi & Mathias Tacke (violins), Richard Young (viola) & Marc Johnson (cello)]
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 4 November, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
The second of Mozart’s three ‘Prussian’ quartets received a cultivated reading, leisurely and occasionally a little static, but with many compensating virtues, notably in the slow movement’s elegant opening duet for cello and viola – the Larghetto tempo perfectly chosen here – and in Shmuel Askenazi’s secure intonation above the stave. The whole reading had a cultured ‘lived-in’ feel to it, avoiding extremes of dynamics but teasing out the light and shade of the music’s inner life and effectively highlighting its changes of direction that anticipate Schubert, notably in the unusually extended and energetic Trio.
Would that the Beethoven had been on same level. Here the Vermeer’s cultured blend and its resolute avoidance of dynamic extremes militated against this music, short-changing Beethoven’s abrupt contrasts. The opening movement cried out to live more dangerously whilst the second, taken at a slowish tempo, felt as though it were being carefully observed from a safe distance rather than experienced first-hand (although Askenazi was notably secure in the upper reaches of the ‘drone’ trio).
Most disappointing of all was the ‘Heiliger Dankgesang’, Beethoven’s song of thanksgiving for recovery from a serious illness. Undoubtedly it was quite beautifully played but where was that sense of wonder, the feeling of the music coming almost from another world? Partly it was a matter of tempo. On this occasion the movement lasted just over 16 minutes whereas with most quartets it lasts well over 17 (and with the Busch just under 20 minutes!). This worked against the intervening episodes achieving maximum contrast but it was also consistently with too full a tone and only towards the movement’s close Mathias Tacke give us some of that ‘inwardness’ so previously lacking. The Vermeer made heavy weather of that little March that marks the invalid’s recovery and the Allegro appassionato finale – taken at a relaxed tempo – was prosaic to a point, both movements demanding an injection of bounding energy.