Ysaÿe Quartet & Paul Meyer

String Quartet in G minor, Op.10
Quintet for Clarinet in A and string quartet [UK premiere]
Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op.115

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

Paul Meyer (clarinet)

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 27 April, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The evening was designed to celebrate Austro-French musical contacts.

The Ysaÿe Quartet, formed in 1984, is internationally renowned and French.

Odd, then, that I found the Debussy quartet the least engrossing. While the performance was manifestly professional, it was also rather sedate – somewhat ‘automatic’, a little tired.

The playing suggested the established master, rather than the trail-blazer at the outset of an amazing career. This Debussy reminded me more of César Franck – or even Brahms. The first movement was lyrical and awake but not bristling with vitality. The second movement was quite vivid, but a little too gentle: the pizzicatos should have been challenging and rhythmically accentuated. The slow movement was sweet as ever – though slightly, unnecessarily tremulous. The last movement had vigour but not passion.

Paul Meyer is an outstanding clarinettist, distinguishing himself in both works heard here. In the Cerha, he was primus inter pares, with a resolute and piercing modernity and an engaging wit. In the Brahms, he was a modestly commanding soloist, leading us through the piece with swathes of a refined, suave yet most affecting lyricism.

Friedrich Cerha’s Clarinet Quintet had its world premiere in Vienna on April 25th, two days before its British premiere. Cerha is 80 years old – Austrian born and trained, with Turkish ancestry. He is perhaps best-known here for producing a playable third act for Alban Berg’s “Lulu”. When, in 1979, Pierre Boulez conducted the first performance, each man recognised a kindred spirit in the other.

In the Clarinet Quintet, the two outer movements are the weightiest. On display were the credentials of someone who learned his craft via the Second Viennese School. Each movement opened with a dissonant pronouncement – aggressive and thickly-textured. Cerha was nodding to Schoenberg and Berg, perhaps – also, possibly, to the opening of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements. Then the music became more ingratiating. A more leisurely gait and thinner texture let the clarinet become distinct and contribute serious, independent comment..

The second movement was delicious. In a scurrying scherzo, a silky staccato from the clarinet matched an affable pizzicato from the strings. The trio section brought sustained strings and a melodic clarinet. The slow movement was genial and rapt. It was a meditation – a townsman’s ‘pastoral’ musing, perhaps. In a haven of peace, the various instruments passed around a contented serenity. I enjoyed this movement the most. It was sparingly expressed but mellow – and wore its individuality lightly.

Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet was a silvered wonder. It was grave and classical – yet infinitely regretful and always lyrical, imbued throughout with an exemplary moonlit clarity.

In playing that was nimble and light-footed, tempos were fleet but unhurried – with all the time in the world for voicing sentiments so timeless. The darker moments (often played fiercely these days) were clouds crossing the moon’s face – powerful but not threatening. One knew they would pass. This version of Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet was almost Gallic. It had a limpid serenity that Maurice Ravel would have recognised.

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