The Leipzig String Quartet
Monday, 3 Aug 2009 at 3:00pm Christ Church Cathedral

Performers Stefan Arzberger, violin; Ivo Bauer, viola; Tilman Büning, violin; Matthias Moosdorf, cello

Reviewer Elizabeth Paterson

MusicFest Vancouver this year highlights German music and musicians. The Leipzig String Quartet opened the programme with a brilliant and forceful concert, delivering virtuoso technique and intense emotion with bravura confidence.

Haydn’s Quartet in C major, “Emperor”, is one of a set commissioned when the composer was in his middle sixties, admired and respected throughout Europe and perhaps able to compose for more himself than to please others.It takes its nickname name from the theme of the 2nd movement, familiar to many now as the German national anthem but originally a hymn or anthem composed in honour of Franz II of Austria many years earlier.

The Allegro presents a single theme against dotted rhythm which is variously transformed in mood from bright to sombre and back. The introduction of a country dance is a surprise and another comes with the viola imitating the first violin towards the end of the movement. A country dance is heard again in the 3rd movement, Menuetto and contrasts with an elegant Trio.

Between these two movements comes the contemplative Poco Adagio in which the Emperor theme is passed to each instrument in turn. Here the extraordinary characteristics of this quartet enabled them to hand off the theme as smoothly as if it were a river passing through varying countryside. The intricate tracery played by the first violin was delicately balanced over the theme now with the second violin, neither drawing attention to itself and detracting from the beautifully played theme, nor too subdued.

The Finale rounds the piece off in a dignified return to the opening key.

If Haydn represents 18th century elegance then Jorg Widmann’s Quartet # 3, “Hunting” may represent the brutality of the modern world. Widmann has said that this quartet, one of a set of single movement pieces, is derived from the classical Scherzo, usually the 3rd movement of a larger piece and usually light-hearted. He says also that its starting off point is from the dotted rhythms of a part of Schumann’s Papillons. Certainly it begins in fine style with the players all whipping the air with their bows and shouting dramatically and the music plunges headlong into galloping rhythms and the sound of hunting horns, familiar from many a classical piece

Soon though it seems that post-modernist ideas are at work. Stringed instruments, the quartet form, the hunting theme and even music itself are deconstructed. In almost programmatic fashion a hunt is vividly depicted, the perspective switching from pursuers to pursued. Violence and an ugly death ensue. The outer limits of stringed instruments are explored with bows bounced and banged on strings and body, the strings sometimes rasping, played extremely close to the neck. Music dissolves into noise.

This is serious music, at once virtuostic, cerebral and emotional. The Leipzig played with unflagging energy throughout, keenly aware of every nuance. The supreme attention to detail they demonstrated served to heighten the emotional tension, leaving me at least somewhat overwhelmed.

The climax of the afternoon was the great Beethoven Quartet in A-minor, Op 132, # 15. Beethoven was 57 when he wrote this quartet, again one of a set. At 57, he had been deaf for years and had been recently ill.

The outer movements were well shaped by the Quartet to enfold the central 3rd movement. The motif of half-step intervals in the first movement and running through the whole work was at once clear to the listener and wholly integrated. The cadence at the end of the first movement was breath-taking and ultimately tied to the final cadence of the whole work. The Molto Adagio - Andante is an intensely felt, deeply personal prayer of thanks to God after recovery from illness.. Separated by two andantes, representing “renewed strength”, the three chorale sections move from a 4-voice chorale through a theme with accompanying voices to four independent voices, progressing in stages to a most profound feeling. The playing here was masterly. Vibrato, consummately matched, grew heavier as emotion deepened, the balance of voices changed almost imperceptibly as the music altered. Back to earth with the crash of the next movement, the Quartet ends with another dark movement which moves towards hope.

The Leipzig String Quartet displayed musical intelligence, sensitivity, empathy, and enormous skill. If the art is to conceal art, then theirs is artistry of the highest order.

© 2009 Elizabeth Paterson