Ysaÿe Quartet

String Quartet in F, Op.135
String Quartet No.6
String Quartet in A, Op.41/3

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

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 10 February, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Deservedly, since it is an ensemble of the highest quality, the Ysaÿe Quartet attracted the fullest possible house for this programme that represented the final thoughts of all three composers in the string quartet medium. In fact, seldom has one seen the Wigmore Hall quite so packed with more people standing (and sitting on the floor) at the rear than one imagined possible.

The final work on the recital, Schumann’s A major Quartet, also figured on a previous Wigmore programme that the Ysaÿe gave (but there has been a change of cellist since then). As then the evening opened with Beethoven. With carefully calculated pauses and remarkably secure intonation in the more exposed passages, this was playing of unusual poise and high polish, definitely Apollonian rather than Dionysian Beethoven. The tempo for the mercurial scherzo was perfectly judged, as was its rambunctious climax. Best of all was the superbly concentrated slow movement with its unusual marking of cantante e tranquillo. The finale, with its opening question “Muss es sein?” (Must it be?) and answer “Es muss sein” (It must be), received an appropriately agonised and questing reading.

Bartók last quartet was completed at a time of great personal stress in the aftermath of the Anschluss when it was clear that Hungary would succumb to fascism. The first two movements were completed on the very day Hitler and Stalin announced their non-aggression pact. The last piece of music Bartók completed before leaving Europe for America, it was also written under the shadow of his mother’s impending death; each of the four movements is prefaced by the marking Mesto (sad). The work opens with an extended viola solo, here superlatively played by Miguel da Silva. If the day were won by sheer beauty of playing, this would have been the last word. However, for all the polish and control, aspects of the music’s essential character seemed in short supply; the two inner movements (‘Marcia’ and ‘Burletta’), which should be jagged and sardonic respectively, lacked that propulsive edge. It was as if the musicians were bringing a very French rationality to music that demands an altogether more visceral approach.

The Schumann elicited an altogether more-engaged response, the tempo for the first movement perfectly judged to allow for those quintessential micro hesitations. The unusual second-movement Variations were handled with passion and flexibility, and the transitions of the Adagio molto, which lies at the work’s heart, were treated with the utmost subtlety, the movement receiving a reading of great tonal lustre. Only the finale, a kind of rondo-cum-gigue, disappointed, seeming a little laboured and lacking in light and shade (although the coda’s progressive increase of speed was perfectly calculated).

Ultimately this recital left one with feelings of admiration and respect for the sheer quality of the playing but emotionally short-changed.

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