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The Ysaÿe Quartet

Haydn Quartet in E-flat Major Op. 64, No. 6 Saint-Saëns Quartet No. 1 in E minor Op. 112 Schumann Quartet in A Major Op. 41, No. 3

Violin Guillaume Sutre Violin Luc-Marie Aguera Viola Miguel da Silva CelloYovan Markovitch

20 November 2007 @ 20.00 | Vancouver Playhouse

Reviewer J H Stape

It was somehow fitting that France's pre-eminent quartet were generously sponsored by Mission Hill Family Estate Winery for this concert: making fine music and making fine wine is patient work, the product better if aged, and this Quartet, together since 1984, clearly had things down to a T.

Haydn's Quartet in E-flat Major Op. 64, No. 6 is all equipoise and equableness, assuring the listener that all's right with the world. The Ysaÿe gave it a stylish performance, though it was somewhat unidiomatically lush in the serious and reflective Andante, Gallic passion being hard to overcome. The menuetto of the third movement bespoke good spirits, expansiveness, and intense geniality, embracing enough to gesture towards folk elements and playfulness with a kind of wise impishness coming to the fore at the close. The breakneck speed of the Presto finale was a technical cliffhanger, vivacious and brightly summery, and fast but not urgent. The playing was poised and polished, as it was throughout this quartet.

There are few French composers more French than Saint-Saëns, and his Quartet No. 1, Opus 112 was the evening's highlight. Melancholy, moody, and volatile, the music demands and got a rich, dark sound; it was, moreover, effortlessly played.

The first movement's emotional spectrum is dauntingly wide, and here it was explored with immense sensitivity up to its fiery ending. The second movement, marked Molto allegro quasi presto, light and energetic, was richly embellished and sensuous, the lightening speed offer no challenges to so finely honed an instrument as the Ysaÿe. The opening meltingly beautiful cantabile of the Molto adagio movement, the third, was rendered with unerring taste, and first violinist especially superb. The movement bores down into depths that seemed bottomless. The characterful, emotionally appealing music of the finale movement brought out exquisite, erudite playing of towering authority.

Schumann would undoubtedly win the "Who's the better composer?" sweepstakes over Saint-Saëns, and his 1842 quartets bristle with ideas and complexity. The Ysaÿe gave a graceful and insistently polished performance to the third of the series.

The players skillfully caught and exploited the shifting moods of the first movement Andante, and the robust energy of the second scherzo-like movement, one characterized by passion and warm full-bodied temperament. The tentative, exploratory character of the lyrical effusion that makes up the Adagio was given full value, with another excursion into the depths of the Romantic temperament. In ruthless contrast, the stark opening of the finale was fidgety. The movement's sent-up dance elements were conveyed with deft brio as the frenzy built to a dramatic, let-your-hair-down conclusion.

Well, not quite, for doing that wouldn't be very French, and the Ysaÿe, despite the cosmopolitan character suggested by its members' surnames, is that to its fingertips: restrained, sophisticated, self-assured. Everything was in unerring good taste, bien sûr. And the technique -- ah, Tout est dans la technique -- impeccable. If these gentlemen related to the nearly full house with all the coldness of sorbet, what matters? They played for the most part exquisitely, even if much of the time they seemed to want to be somewhere else.

© 2007 J H Stape