The Ehnes String Quartet achieved an enviable mastery of rhythm in Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Minor, ‘Serioso’, and it was immediately obvious that the four players – violinists James Ehnes and Amy Schwartz Moretti, viola player Richard O’Neill and cellist Robert DeMaine – strove towards a single purpose. The ‘cello fastened the first movement’s pacing with its measured beats; the sound from each instrument was of a tone that’s rarely captured when more than one string instrument begins to play – even in orchestras. Melodies on first and second violin could have been fractionally more mellifluous and tiny touches of dynamic variation – subtler diminuendi, more gradual sliding off the notes – could have crept into the execution. Aiming for a clean, precise, unrattled rhythm, some crucial minutiae got a bit lost.
As they embarked on the lugubrious Voces intimae by Sibelius, the quartet slowly started to unfurl its claws. Brusque shifts in tempo and dynamics took place, yet these were not faults, but simply slightly questionable choices. Sometimes the instrumentalists played different harmonies in the same style, at the same volume, emanating passion through their music in an expected manner; rigidly and in a predetermined rhythm. The flame burned steadily rather than colourfully. But finally the chains were cut loose. Dire premonition could be heard in the ‘cello’s grave low tones; angst was carried to our ears as we heard rounds of imitation of one sombre motif. The jerky, more modern harmonies, the scrambling of the strings to find some inexplicit goal, were all constituents of this fine work we heard expressed exuberantly. At last it radiated the grim sentimentality in which this piece abounds.
Throughout their performance of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, the quartet gave its listeners jagged rhythms, the throbbing competitiveness of its counterpoint harmonies, timid and abashed light ditties, and sometimes even a playful, staccato-fuelled rhythm. The mania that permeates the music was apparent but it didn’t spill into the technical finesse of its performance. If one considered that the work had been composed a little after Schubert had discovered he was dying, one could hear the struggle between morbidity and self-denial; an unrelenting search to find a truth which nobody wants to confront.
Lastly the ensemble treated us to a contrasting performance of the final movement of Dvořák’s American Quartet as an encore. It was sprightly and bouncy, full of almost frenetic joy. It was everything we wouldn’t have expected from the players we had heard and thus the final confirmation that, whatever gloss these instrumentalists employ to make their rhythm and their intonation sparkle – other string quartets should want at least an ounce of it.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk.