Saturday, January 25, 2014

A sojourn in musical heaven with the London Haydn Quartet

Catherine Manson and James Boyd in action.
What a night.

I'm actually still in a daze after last weekend's appearance by the London Haydn Quartet at the Boston Early Music Festival.  It was one of the most transporting concerts of the year, and in one fell swoop (or perhaps three, as the concert included not only Haydn but also Beethoven and Mozart) made a strong case for ranking this quartet among the best of its generation.

It's remarkable, I thought to myself as the concert progressed, just how few period instrument string quartets there actually are, given the subtle, supple sound of gut strings is so very different from that of a modern instrument. This group is even more remarkable in that it champions Haydn's quartets in particular - which are played far less often than you'd expect.

Their performance of Op. 50, No. 1 only made you wonder why this is so.  One of the joys of my own middle age has been my late appreciation of Haydn, and this quartet is a particularly eloquent sample of his genius.  This time, however, his wit is cut with more than a trace of melancholy; indeed, from its opening solo on the violoncello, this opus suggests haunted cadences moving beneath its ingeniously rippling surface. The effect was all the more touching in the resonant acoustic of First Congregational Church, which seemed to support the quartet's sound without blurring it.

Throughout, the players proved an astonishingly nimble ensemble. Lead violinist Catherine Manson was always in charge, but evinced a clear sense of artistic give-and-take with both second violinist Michael Gurevich and violist James Boyd; meanwhile guest cellist Pierre Doumenge blended into their sublimely intimate conversation with superb skill. And a conversation was precisely what it was - which is perfect for Haydn, who may be the ultimate musical raconteur. Indeed, it's not too much to say that Manson and company pulled off something quite special: they not only exquisitely conveyed the master's musical expression but his own consciousness of that expression, that is to say his internal consideration of his own musical materials - a subtle trick indeed.

But on to Beethoven and Mozart. The Beethoven was, quite naturally, an early quartet (perhaps his first quartet), Op. 18, No. 3 - over which the elder Haydn's shadow clearly falls.  Indeed, the piece opens with a witty echo of Haydn's Op. 50 (which we had just heard); but soon Beethoven's characteristic challenges begin cutting through the elegant texture - which often gathers into sudden storms of chords - so that eventually the quartet begins to feel almost like a genial quarrel between the emotional poles of these two giants. The performers seemed to understand both sides of the exchange, however, and delivered particularly transporting playing in the long, deep sighs of the Andante and the romping high spirits of the concluding Presto.

Finally came Mozart - and one of his most popular pieces of chamber music, the Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K. 581.  Here Eric Hoeprich joined the quartet on basset clarinet, a period variant which sports a few extra notes, ends in a curious bell, and not only sings with unusual poignance, but seems nearly capable of a duet with itself in different registers and timbres. The evidence is strong, btw, that the first performance of this piece occurred on just such an instrument (one belonged to the original performer, Anton Stadler); of course Hoeprich's clarinet is inevitably something of a reconstruction, based to some degree on intelligent guesswork - but his exquisite sound (and superb match to the period strings)  was, shall we say, extremely persuasive on this score.  He, like Doumenge, slipped as smoothly into the ensemble as a hand in a glove; the resulting mood moved from the tender to the dancing and back again - and the famous Larghetto was achingly lovely.  It was the ravishing capstone to a night I'll long remember.

Next from BEMF: Sequentia sings the music of Hildegard von Bingen.

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