Ysaÿe Quartet

Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K546
String Quartet in E minor, Op.121
3 Pieces
Double Canon
String Quartet in E flat, Op.127

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

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 22 March, 2005
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

This was an imaginative programme that did not quite come off, a real pity given the enterprising programming. The Ysaÿe Quartet is a particularly impressive group that gave a resoundingly fine account of Schumann’s A minor Quartet at the Wigmore Hall in July 2003. Since then there has been one personnel change, a new cellist, Yovan Markovitch.

The long first half had a distinctly uncompromising feel to it, one of Mozart’s tougher nuts followed by elusive late Fauré and gritty Stravinsky. Starting with Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue (music which Beethoven admired so much that he made himself a copy), the calculated finesse of the Ysaÿe’s playing was immediately apparent in the carefully balanced sound of the Adagio and the tense muscular playing of the Fugue; not ingratiating music but nutritious.

The plum was undoubtedly the Fauré, his swansong written when he was almost 80 – composed in 1923-4, it actually post-dated two of the pieces by Stravinsky which followed – and it was given the most understanding of performances which caught the music’s rise and fall, its ebb and flow, quite effortlessly. In particular the Ysaÿe gauged the work’s emotional temperature to a nicety. This was like a conversation between four old friends who no longer feel the need to raise their voice in order to be heard. The fade out at the first movement’s close was quite magical and the central chanson sans paroles had a dappled light and shade just right for this understated music. In this most elegiac of movements I was reminded of that magical moment in Proust’s “A la Recherche du Temps Perdu” when the narrator, Marcel himself, a contemporary of Fauré, listens once again to Vinteuil’s Sonata and it evokes all his half-submerged memories, Time Regained through Art.

Stravinsky’s Concertino, written in 1920, came like a blast from a more abrasive post-war world. The Ysaÿe (especially violist, Miguel da Silva) gave its motoric rhythms a real kick and Guillaume Sutre was remarkably secure, both in the Concertino’s double-stopped slow section and the stratospheric demands of the slightly earlier 3 Pieces. The hieratic slow-moving ‘Canticle’, which Stravinsky considered “some of my best music of that time”, was played with extraordinary finesse and precision, as was the succeeding Double Canon from 1959).

If polished, detailed playing was enough, the Ysaÿe’s Beethoven would have been a great performance, but it disappointed due in part to misjudged tempos coupled with a reluctance to tackle the music with anything resembling Beethovenian vehemence. Almost without exception tempos were fractionally too slow, especially the Adagio ma non troppo, which was played as if it were holy writ. Yes, the blend and quality of sound was magnificent, balances exceptional, but rather than holding one on a fine-spun web it dragged and the reverential tempo necessitated an abrupt gear change when the movement’s central Andante con moto section arrived.

The inevitable mobile phone kicked in before the scherzo, again taken fractionally too slowly for its syncopation to register fully (but perversely with the swiftest of Presto sections at its heart) and the Finale felt dogged. There may be no right tempo for this music but whatever speed is chosen, there is a bounding vitality about both these movements that was here negated, the final pages limp and flat for all the musicians’ careful calibration.

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