Chamber Music Society of Salt Lake: Modigliani Quartet @ Libby Gardner 03.28

Posted April 3, 2012 in ,
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The Modigliani Quartet. Photo: Carole Bellaiche
Arriaga, Quartet No. 3 in E-flat Major
Andantino: (Pastorale)
Presto agitato

Beethoven, Quartet in F Major, Opus 18, No. 1
Allegro con brio
Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato
Scherzo: Allegro molto

Dohnanyi, Quartet No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 33
Allegro agitato e appassionato
Andante religioso con variazioni
Vivace giocoso

Wednesday evening’s performance was by the Modigliani Quartet, which was formed in Paris in 2003, and is among the most sought after contemporary chamber groups in the world at the moment. With a year-round worldwide concert schedule, and some of the nicer instruments and the appropriate chops to play them, the four young Frenchmen who make up the quartet are Philippe Bernhard, playing a 1780 violin by Giovanni Battista Guadagnini; Loic Rio, playing a 1734 violin by Alessandro Gagliano; Laurent Marfaing, playing a 1590 viola by Luigi Mariani; and Francois Kieffer, playing a 1706 Matteo Goffriller cello. It is worth noting that the performers share the front of their bill with their instruments, which according to their website are provided “by the generosity and support of private sponsors.”

The instruments a string player plays an are often very old, rare, and like a painting, have a verified line of ownership going back hundreds of years. That line of ownership often includes very famous players. The Goffriller Mr. Kieffer plays is listed as “former ‘Warburg,’” which means it was owned by Cellist Gerald F. Warburg, founder of the Stradivarius Quartet, of whose instruments he also owned quite a few. Goffriller, perhaps the greatest cello maker, is the one who was favored by the two twentieth century titans of the cello, Pablo Cassals and Emanuel Feuerman. Unlike horn players and pianists, the best string players cannot afford to own the violins and cellos they play, if they play the finer boxes. A named violin can cost millions of dollars at auction and go up in price every year. There is some debate about whether the sound of these violins and cellos is really different from the finest newer ones. If the proof is in the choices players make, it seem pretty clearly in favor of the old great instruments, as pretty much all the great players play them. This leads to a question, of course, at the heart of value and objects. Is the instrument great because great players play them or vice versa? This is the question we have about art in general. Is it important art because it is in the museum, or is it in the museum because it is important art?

All the quartets that have played this season’s chamber music series have been as much the rock stars as any touring rock band, and these guys have every appearance of being hipsters - slender and darkly good looking with cool haircuts and black suits with black shirts and open collars, as though they just walked out of one of those Cosmopolitan commercials and onto the stage. Where we really get a sense of the rockstar is when they start playing.

The first piece, the Quartet No. 3 in E-Flat Major, began abruptly like a needle set down in the middle of a record. Their playing style is both seamless and polished, but with just a bit of wow and romance, much as the outer gentlemen. This piece, written by a 17-year-old musical genius, Juan Crisostomo Jacobo Antonio de Arriaga y Balzola (sometimes referred to as the Spanish Mozart), was born fifty years to the day after Mozart’s death. He wrote two operas, one before he was thirteen, cantatas in French, various chamber music, choral works and one symphony. He died at twenty. His best works are the three string quartets he wrote between 1821-22. This, the third one, is overall optimistic in tone. The second movement, Andantino: (Pastorale), starts with a droning cello and a melody passed back and forth between the other three like hunting horns on hillsides--it feels like music from a world gone by, when suddenly, it turns into a song of frantic stillness. A rhythm of melody that is martial but uncadenced on all four instruments, like jungle ants hunting or lake edge starlings swarming, a musical murmuration, and played in this performance with absolute precision. The third movement was a particularly haunting and gothic sounding Minuet, one can almost see Spanish gentlemen and ladies making the slow surreal gestures of the dance that would match it.

The second piece, a Beethoven Quartet, was written when the composer was 29. Beethoven sent the manuscript to a close friend who played in a quartet himself, as a token of their friendship, that he should play it and share it with other musicians. A year later, he wrote again, explaining that he hadn’t known how to write quartets and had changed it, and would his friend mind not giving out the old one anymore. Fortunately, the old quartet was saved and we can see the changes between the two, which included an almost completely rewritten section of the first movement, and a toning down of the dynamics both emotionally and thematically throughout. Although the performance was emotional and suave, this piece did not quicken my pulse during the opening or closing allegro. The most moving part was the Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato second movement, which was written as a meditation on the burial vault scene in Romeo and Juliet, expressing the sadness of the eternal parting of lovers.

The third piece, by Ernst von Dohnanyi, the most contemporary of the three composers at the concert, was consistent with my experiences throughout this season of chamber music: I have liked the newer composers the best. Plainly a prodigy, he was composing by the age of 7. This Quartet was written in 1926 when he was 49. The first movement, Allegro agitato e appassionato, is downright monumental. It was really the only point in the evening where I found myself at the edge of my seat in rapt concentration with the music. The nervous energy of the themes passed back and forth between the players giving a particularly nice study of this very old viola’s soulful, rangy sound, and highlighting the noticeable differences between the timbres of the two violins. The second movement was a Klimt painting, short bursts of melody and tones like stencils of color and sheen over which the broader melodies shone like portraits against geometry.

For an encore, the quartet played a Shostakovich polka from the larger piece, the Age of Gold. They played like schoolboys up to a bit of mischief, and in which the audience seemed delighted to share. This concert was dedicated to Leyah Chausow, who was a founding member of the Chamber Music Society of Salt Lake City, and in a short pre-concert dedication, it was mentioned that this was just the type of concert that she would have enjoyed, in part because it offered something new to discover.
The Modigliani Quartet. Photo: Carole Bellaiche The Modigliani Quartet. Photo: Carole Bellaiche The Modigliani Quartet. Photo: Carole Bellaiche