Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Vision String Quartet is as precise as it is masterly at the Wigmore Hall

27 February 2023

Wigmore Hall

Wigmore Hall (Photo: Benjamin Ealovega)

A recital that, in the best possible way, produced more questions than answers!

Founded in 2012, the Vision String Quartet may not be a household name in the United Kingdom, but judged by the standard of its playing at this Monday lunchtime recital it very much deserves to be. The four musicians from Berlin are on a mission ‘to readdress, with integrity, how classical music is presented and perceived by both new and traditional audiences’, and they frequently play from memory or even perform concerts in the dark.

Although the lights were kept on at the Wigmore Hall, no music stands were present and everyone apart from the cellist stood to play. With the performance space thus being entirely bare, save for one stool, the audience was able to engage with the idea of four performers alone creating music, free from any ‘accessories’ or ‘adornments’.

This set up aided the performances of the programme’s two quartets in a variety of ways, as both pose questions. In the case of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110 (1960), these centre around the composer’s intentions. Although it is dedicated ‘to the victims of fascism and war’, and no one could doubt his sincerity on this matter, it may also be about more personal concerns. By 1960, Shostakovich’s long battle with ill health had begun, and in that year he was forced to join (shamefully from his perspective) the Communist Party, when Khrushchev appointed him head of the new Union of Composers of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. With thoughts of suicide even crossing his mind, and thinking ‘when I die it’s not likely anyone will write a quartet dedicated to my memory’, he decided to compose one for himself.

“The four musicians… frequently play from memory or even perform concerts in the dark”

The opening Largo, which is pervaded by Shostakovich’s ‘DSch’ motif (D – E flat – C – B natural) felt suitably intriguing, with the first violin’s line being rendered especially well as it ‘wended its way’ through the movement. The ensemble’s style of playing then produced enormous dividends in the violent Allegro motto that followed. Much as this was overpowering, it was so tightly controlled that it felt like some well oiled war machine going into overdrive. The Allegretto that followed, while being less overt and arguably more ironic, also offered something that felt quite mechanistic.

The fourth and fifth movements were contrasted well as the first of these conveys drones and anti-aircraft fire, in line with the work’s official dedication, and the second seems to offer a more personal lament. Nevertheless, the strength of the performance lay in the total musicality that shone throughout, which saw the piece ultimately come across as a coherent whole, and ensured that at times the dividing line between the public and private felt extremely thin as if Shostakovich’s own sorrow was also the world’s.

Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 8 in A minor, Op. 13 (1827) poses a different type of question. It provides an incipit from ‘Frage’, the first song from his 12 Lieder, Op. 9, written earlier the same year, in which the text asks ‘Ist es war?’ (Is it true?). This questioning motif bookends the quartet, and in this performance the energy at the centre of both the first and second movements was captured extremely well.

Just as the ensemble exerted control in the violent Allegro motto in the Shostakovich so it did over the scurrying effects required in the Intermezzo, which led them to possess a beautifully understated quality. The rendering of the Presto and Adagio non lento was also masterly by feeling sufficiently charged when it needed to be, but also offering to the full the reflection that is such a key component of the final movement, meditating, as it seems to do, on Beethoven’s recent death. By way of an encore the Vision String Quartet played a piece entitled Copenhagen from its new album Spectrum to round off a truly superlative hour at the Wigmore Hall.    

• This concert can be watched in HD until 28 May 2023. It was also broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is currently available on BBC Sounds.

• For details of all of the Vision String Quartet’s recordings and future events visit its website.

• For details of all upcoming events at the venue visit the Wigmore Hall website.

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The Vision String Quartet is as precise as it is masterly at the Wigmore Hall