The Endellion String Quartet tempted the jaded palates of overheated concert-goers with three quirky works, all created as hommages to earlier composers: Mozart’s quartet in E flat, K.428 – the most abstract and ‘themeless’ of a set of six quartets dedicated to Haydn; Mendelssohn’s first published string quartet, Opus 13 in A, written when the composer was 18, six months after the death of Beethoven, and clearly a tribute to the great man; and Ravel’s only string quartet, dedicated to (although loathed by) his composition teacher, Gabriel Fauré. The quartet’s tone was always warm, and never overly metallic or harsh, and their simple ‘conversational’ style of playing produced a seemingly effortless flow of well-crafted phrases.
The Mozart quartet began with a set of leaps, that dissolved into a chase-my-tail section of imitation: a musical conversation into which the players fully entered. The gentle lilting opening of the second movement gave way to adroit glissandi of dissonant cadences. With a serendipitous sense of reference, the braying opening of the Menuetto movement might have been a foreshadowing of Mendelssohn’s Bergomask from his incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the final movement saw a return to the delicious sliding dissonances melting into perfect cadential phrases. Such writing serves absolutely to prove Mozart’s genius, and indeed, it was after hearing the six quartets that Haydn is said to have told Leopold Mozart: “I tell you before God and as an honest man, your son is the greatest composer I know in person or by name”.
Mendelssohn’s Opus 18 quartet was a different beast entirely; the references to Beethoven were there, and this was clearly a work of a new century, with the first movement opening in a sprightly way, but transforming, via more imitative passages, to tempestuous flurries of sound that had the players applying force to their bows. The respite of the second movement came with an ‘organ interlude’ – a hymn-like melody at the start and end, that bracketed a meandering middle fugato section. The third movement’s opening pizzicato-accompanied tune soon gave way to frenetic homophony which, via a set of imitative passages, spun to a dizzying staccato finish, that the Endellion Quartet accomplished with a flourish of such verve that it presented the seasoned Wigmore audience with a dilemma – the feeling that applause was necessary was palpable, but concert etiquette demanded that they wait until the end of the piece. And that arrived soon enough via a majestic final movement, full of bravado, interspersed with lyrical moments and almost-gypsy tunes, finally drawing to a close on a series of slow chords that left us in no doubt that Mendelssohn was paraphrasing Beethoven’s Heliger Dankgesang from his Opus 132 quartet.
Ravel’s quartet is, arguably, the closest a piece of music comes to an impressionist painting: it places the listener under a Monet sky on a hot day in Val d’Oise. Moments of warm languor are interrupted by little cyclone flurries of the dry grass, or by stronger breezes, or even blustery interludes. The Endellions created this image for us perfectly – from the lyric opening melody that could only be French, the gutsily delivered pizzicato and witty throw-away ending of the second movement, the lightest touches of the bow in the slow movement – giving us ethereal sounds falling just short of harmonics – and the troubled final movement where a deliberate metallic edginess was briefly unleashed.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk.