Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Alban Berg Quartet @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

13 February 2007

The Alban Berg Quartet doing Beethoven’s String Quartet Op.130 was a miraculous thing.

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Queen Elizabeth Hall (Photo: Morley von Sternberg)

If time stood still in the transcendent, achingly poignant Cavatina one of Beethoven’s personal favourites then it sped past in a mighty performance of the Grosse Fuge, Op.133.

The work’s first movement displayed malleable dynamics and shaping, coupled with a persuasive sense of architecture.

The following Presto was replete with virtuosic dynamism; the Andante con moto moved from the first violin’s poorly pitched opening note to provide completely sincere humour and playful conversation between instruments (especially from the cello of Valentin Erben); the fourth movement dance found a near perfect balance of instruments. The Cavatina almost defied belief, with intimate, ideally weighted textures and long legato lines spun effortlessly from every player. And if techniques were stretched in the final Fugue, the toilsome diligence reaped many rewards: not least the thrill of seeing the quartet climb one of the great mountains of chamber music and reach the top in blazing glory.

Such superlatives were less suited to a disappointing first half. Haydn’s Op.20 No.4 is a typically sunny and well balanced affair, and the Alban Berg Quartet started with superb baritonal warmth. Their mellifluous opening passages boasted superb phrasing, excellently controlled vibrato and effective ritardandi at decorations. But then, as complexity crept into the writing, roughness crept into the playing. The first violin of Günter Pichler in particular produced too many ugly sounds, while dynamics became less responsive, the further in that we went.

The Adagio boasted a fine cello variation but lacking was any sense of personal torment. Then the gypsy-like third movement was attacked with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and though the final Presto did bounce along with a certain jubilation, Gerhard Schulz on the second violin had a tendency to over-bow and lose pitch. The whole thing was a positively bizarre mix of refinement and coarseness, and one possessing little sense of wonderment that the Sun quartets can induce.

In Wolfgang Rihm‘s Grave (here given its UK premiere), coarseness is a requisite, and this was obviously a committed and studious performance. The work was composed in memory of Thomas Kakuska, former member of the quartet, who died from cancer in 2005, and its mood veers between anguish and anger or at least those are the emotions summoned by the lugubrious concoction of dissonance and deathly tempi. The opening, with its angular and craggy shapes is fairly effective, and the viola (played with great drama here by Isabel Charisius) has some interestingly ethereal and individual writing to deal with.

The work does, however, require a great attention span not for any complex plethora of ideas, but rather for its plodding pace, extended length and great use (probably overuse) of silence. Many may have time for it, but I did not. And in retrospect, who could blame me, given the quality of the Beethoven to follow?

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