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S & H Recital Review

Haydn, Webern, Brahms Alban Berg Quartet, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Thursday, February 26th, 2004 (CC)


The ABQ has demonstrated its imaginative approach to concert programming before – in January 2003 there was concert of Haydn, Schnittke and Beethoven, for example. The combination of classics with more challenging (in a modernist sense) fare is a powerful one. Here the link between Brahms’ concentrated language and the Second Viennese School was made at one remove. If Brahms and Schoenberg might have seemed a more obvious choice, there is no doubting that the tersely-wrought utterances of Schoenberg’s pupil Anton von Webern seemed close in spirit (if not in the immediate sound-world) to those of Brahms at his most inspired.

If these two composers represented peaks of Romanticism and early modernism respectively, it was entirely apt that the ABQ should begin with the ‘father of the string quartet’, Haydn. Interesting that their choice was the String Quartet in D minor, Op. 76 No. 2 (‘Fifths’, 1797), a masterpiece of Haydnesque angst. Indeed, it was this fraught aspect the ABQ projected the best. It is worth noting that the very opening was perfectly together – it’s only when one hears it like this that one realises how often ensemble is just very slightly out. The quartet’s warm sound intensified rather than softened the experience. Here one could here the voice of experience in the way that the exposition repeat sounded inevitable. The quartet revealed a veil of sadness in the ‘Andante a piú tosto allegro’ second movement, taking this from the first movement. A pity the ABQ cannot really ‘do’ rustic (for the Menuetto). The finale was projected as a gypsy dance. Arguably a certain wit was missing, but too much frivolity would have conflicted with the ABQ’s overall conception.

The qualities of clarity and concision are paramount in the music of Haydn. So, too, are they in the crystalline beauty of the works of Anton von Webern. Interesting that they played three separate opuses as a three-movement quartet (Five Movements, Op. 5; Six Bagatelles, Op. 9; String Quartet, Op. 28), with applause reserved for the end. It worked magnificently. The ABQ’s foregrounding of the Romantic gesture in this music brought to mind the early recordings of Robert Craft in the music of this composer (although Craft was far more approximate in basics such as notes than the ABQ is!). This is not to imply that edges were unnecessarily ironed out – far from it. The very opening of Op. 5 (the Five Movements of 1909) was red raw and explosive, yet it also revealed Webern’s crystalline harmonic thought. Expressionist simultaneities were frequently nightmarish while lines often moved across silences (as indeed they should). Sometimes the music spoke on the very threshold of hearing/consciousness, a most disturbing effect akin to a waking dream; sometimes the harmonies themselves emerged as almost unspeakably beautiful. The fact is that the ABQ seemed entirely at home in this music – it spoke with an unforced naturalness that enabled it to make its full effect. Remarkable.

The A minor Quartet, Op. 51 No. 2 by Brahms dates from his mature period (1865-73) and exudes warmth (in fact it positively glows) wedded to formidable compositional security. The ABQ almost presented it as the result of ‘easy invention’, so natural did it sound – especially a contrasting idea of the most throw-away insouciance. The veiled statements of the Andante moderato and the shadows of the Menuetto were memorable, but possibly most impressive was the imposing sense of breadth accorded to the finale. This was a most moving performance – the encore of more Haydn, bringing the recital full-circle (the Adagio of Op. 76 No. 1) was entirely apt.

Never less than musically satisfying, when caught on form (as on this occasion), the ABQ reveals itself to be one of the world’s foremost string quartets. Their programming of works, also, is to be treasured. More, please.

Colin Clarke




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