Beethoven: String Quartet no.10 in E-flat major, op.74, ‘Harp’
Ligeti: String Quartet no.1, ‘Métamorphoses nocturnes’
Cécile Roubin, Sarah Dyan (violins)
Guillaume Becker (viola)
Lydia Shelley (cello)
It was with an introspective, almost world-weary introduction that the Quatuor Voce opened this Wigmore Hall Sunday morning concert – until, that is the first, but not the last, of Beethoven’s sforzandi disrupted yet ultimately confirmed that mood. A sense of hard work continued until the exposition proper of the so-called ‘Harp’ Quartet, which rightly came as relief but not, given Beethoven’s extraordinary motivic concision, relaxation. A furious yet still introverted development, save perhaps for the ‘harp’ music itself, prepared the way for the return, so much of which it coloured and indeed generated; dialectical contradictions and all, it was properly a second development. Just as important was a sense of humour. A songful slow movement was situated somewhere between earth and heaven; the more one listened, the more was going on, intellectually and emotionally. A hard-driven scherzo certainly offered contrast, if not quite the sense of exhilaration for which some of us might have wished. Its trio’s brazen modernity ultimately proved, for me at least, more invigorating. An apparent glance back to the eighteenth century from the variation finale’s theme offered further contrast, but nothing is ever quite so easy as that in Beethoven. Not the least virtue of this performance was that, even if one might not have agreed, it drew one in to listen. I have heard more ‘sublime’ accounts of op.74; this, however, made no apology for its difficulty.
Ligeti’s First String Quartet had originally been programmed to come first. I have little doubt that reordering was the right thing to have done. Although there was nothing to complain about and much to praise in the Beethoven, it was this that received the more intense performance, truly grabbing one by the throat and not letting one go. The weird unease of Ligeti’s opening scales here sounded almost as if an inversion of Wozzeck’s drowning. There was perhaps something of Bartók’s night music to the melodies and fragments heard above. Brief community in fury prior to dialectical breakdown, and so on, had one inevitably think of Beethoven’s methods too. Here, as the quartet progressed, we heard not only reinvention of quartet writing – many composers have accomplished that in one way or another – but also reinvention of quartet tradition, a far sterner task. One reheard Beethoven, Berg, and Bartók – as well as Ligeti. The Tempo di valse section’s loucheness offered ample opportunity, well taken, for both relishing disintegrative tendencies and keeping them in check; such is surely the game. There was humour too, as in Beethoven, perhaps even an additional sense of anarchic craziness. What a mind, what an ear!
As an encore we heard Hamza El Din’s Escalay (‘Water Wheel’), part of a current project, ‘Itinéraire’, in which the Quatuor Voce looks at links between written and oral melodies. If insubstantial, it had atmosphere. The Ligeti was the thing.