Ysaÿe Quartet

String Quartet in F minor, Op.95 (Serioso)
String Quartet in D minor, K421
String Quartet in A, Op.41/3

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

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 15 July, 2003
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

A distinguished concert by an exceptional group. The world is not short of good string quartets but the Ysaÿe must be somewhere near the top of the current crop. It attracted a capacity house at a time when many regular concertgoers are drifting away for their summer break.

True quality is sometimes evident in the simplest of gestures. For example, the tensely abrupt octave unison statement which opens the Beethoven made its full arresting impact not simply because it was unanimous and fortissimo, but because balance was so spot-on. Playing with limited vibrato, the whole first movement was given with a sinewy power completely right for this music which, it could be argued, is Beethoven’s quartet equivalent to the opening movement of his Fifth Symphony. In fact, the relatively short span of this quartet encapsulates much of Beethoven’s terrifying life and death struggles, the visionary ‘late’ quartets glimpsed in moments of repose. It was, then, particularly egregious to have proceedings interrupted by the arrival of latecomers after the first movement had ground to its sullen, muttering end. The second, though beautifully played, was taken marginally too slowly – the only quibble in an otherwise outstandingly stylish performance.

The great Mozart D minor quartet opened promisingly, the opening ’Allegro’ rightly taken with moderation but seething with a scarcely suppressed desperation just below the surface. However, despite some superb playing, the remaining movements seemed unduly reined in and reticent. The ’Andante’ slid by rather too comfortably; it contains darker shadows than the Ysaÿe teased out. The finale poses particular interpretative problems, which were not altogether solved. Like the finale of the C minor piano concerto (K491), the quartet’s last movement is unashamedly sectional and needs to lope along with a certain cumulative quiet menace if the shock value and overwhelming intensity of the (major key) coda is to be fully realised. On this occasion it sounded a little too contained, too Rococo.

The jewel was Schumann’s too rarely played Third Quartet. From the gentle flowering of the opening, it was immediately clear that this was a labour of love – music to which the quartet’s sound and style are ideally suited. The viola has a particular importance and Miguel da Silva’s eloquently understated playing, always quietly-present in the texture, was a masterclass in itself. However, it is invidious to single out one player – all four listen so carefully to each other and play this music as if it were the most natural of conversations between four friends, none of whom need to hog the limelight. The Adagio molto is on the grandest scale, one of the really great quartet slow movements; in this performance its hushed ending was pure magic. After this, the finale, a relatively conventional Allegro molto vivace, comes as something of a shock; notwithstanding the tempo marking, a slightly less frenetic base speed might have worked better, not least because it would have allowed more elbow room to clinch the coda.

Nonetheless, Schumann interpretation does not come much better or more committed than this. It is good news that the Ysaÿe has recorded all three quartets for Aeon for release early next year.

The concert was most elegantly rounded off with the finale of Haydn’s second Opus 54 quartet, just essayed by the Ysaÿe for Aeon. How typically inventive of Haydn to buck the norm by writing an adagio finale that frames a quirky presto, here given with just the right combination of profundity and wit.

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