Quartet in the Couchette

Inside the art and world of the string quartet, and a preview of the upcoming chamber music season on Vienna stages

The Modigliani Quartet: Philippe Bernhard, Loïc Rio, violins; Laurent Marfaing, viola; François Kieffer, cello: among the “Rising Stars” of European music. | Photo: Carole Baillaiche

What is the optimum number of people for a dinner party? Some say six, others eight. In Japan, if based on how dishes are sold, the number must be in sets of five.

And the optimum number of people for a team trying to get something innovative done? I have had answers that range from one to seven.

Which leads to the question that really interests me: Chamber music. What is the optimum number here? While it might be interesting sometimes to listen to an entire evening of solo trumpet, or a piccolo-double bass duet, history, it seems, has given us a perfect number: the four members of a string quartet.

Even the Austrian Railways seem to think so. In the 1980s they had a special overnight deal: “In a couchette, best as a quartet,” the ad went. I was playing in a quartet at the time (two women, two men) and we were amused by the erotic connotations.

Judging from the quantity of string quartet concerts scheduled for the upcoming season in Vienna – 62 in the Konzerthaus and the Musikverein alone – it is clear: the quartet is an evolutionary frontrunner.

The setup is simple enough: A string quartet consists of two violins, a viola and a cello. And yet, as Lewis Lockwood, emeritus professor of musicology at Harvard, writes: “The quartet offer[s] an aesthetic arena for the four most agile and versatile of instruments, instruments that [can] blend perfectly with one another, shift their modes of expression with quicksilver flexibility, and engage in complex dialogues in a wide range of musical contexts.”

Agility and flexibility seem to be the key. The composers in the 18th and early 19th centuries who were the first to grab onto the novel idea of composing for these four instruments were also agile and flexible. And they were here in Vienna: Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, as any introductory music appreciation course will say, were the figures who first defined what a string quartet could do.

These three composers, while often thought of as the older, the middle and the younger, actually overlapped in their working years. In fact, Mozart died before Haydn. The music patron Count Lobkowitz simultaneously commissioned quartets from Beethoven and Haydn, which must have caused some rivalry and looking over each other’s shoulders. And the output of these three Viennese masters is still the mainstay of quartet concert programming. In fact, few of the upcoming concerts are without a quartet by Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven.

Playing string quartets is not merely putting together a group of people who can play these instruments. A true quartet ensemble is the result of playing together over many years, developing a oneness of style and becoming known for a particular attitude toward performance.

The Gewandhaus-Quartett of Leipzig, the oldest quartet in the world, has existed continuously, in slowly-shifting formations, since 1808. While certainly following the fashions of each age, the developments in musical taste and composition, it is intriguing to imagine the quartet still carrying bits of performing wisdom handed down directly from Beethoven until today.

Some of the biggest-name quartets dissolved while I was a student: the Amadeus, the LaSalle. Hearing a farewell concert was poignant in a frightening way: Who was going to carry on? The last concert in 2008 of Vienna’s Alban Berg Quartett, which sat for nearly 40 years at the pinnacle of the world’s string ensembles, was hopelessly sold out. Every string player in Vienna yearned for one last chance to hear them.

The members of the Guarneri, another leading ensemble of the last half-century and one of the few quartets with which Arthur Rubinstein played and recorded, remained nearly unchanged for 45 years. Such long-lived quartets are often compared to a good marriage, although (contrary to the Austrian railways) when on tour, the Guarneri often travelled separately and stayed in different hotels – which may be the secret!

The list of ensembles for this season is long. The hometown Viennese quartets, of course, have their own individual subscription series: the Küchl, Artis, Eos, Hagen, Mosaïque and the Wiener (not the most original name, but the easiest to remember). The list continues with the Emerson, Pavel Haas, Auryn, Artemis and Minetti. The Arditti Quartet, which will be performing this fall in the Festival Wien Modern, stands out because it exclusively plays contemporary music. In fact, several hundred quartets have been composed specifically for them.

Of the old guard, the Tokyo String Quartet has been around since 1969. And the Borodin is celebrating its 66th jubilee. Vienna’s doyen, the Berg quartet, clearly has a legacy: They have coached nearly all of the young quartets coming to Vienna in the next season. Learning to play quartets, at the world-class level, is a one-to-one process that involves digesting a tradition.

“Rising Stars” is a series of concerts supported by the European Commission under the auspices of world-renowned concert halls. Both the Musikverein and the Konzerthaus are taking part, and this year they are presenting the Tetraktys String Quartet (Athens) and the Quatuor Modigliani (Paris). Both young quartets – founded within the last 10 years – consist of four remarkably handsome young men, who look more like movie stars (these are the true Men in Black!) than classical musicians.

The Musikverein is also hosting the Quartett.Impuls series, four concerts in the Gläserner Saal, the futuresque, golden glass hall in its basement. The quartets in this series are younger yet, many of the members not quite 30. The Quatuor Zaïde is a nice counter-balance to the guys in black: four young women (they’re also in black, of course). The first violin of the Erlenbusch Quartett is Michael Barenboim, who is, yes, the son of a very famous conductor. The Amaryllis and the Elias are other Berg protégées.

It’s relieving to see that the art of the quartets is still capturing the fresh young eyes, ears and hands of today.

My last concert of last season was another extraordinary foursome, the Belcea Quartet. With an extreme clarity and propensity for the shimmering of open strings, they create a sound that is unique. They have a dangerously wide dynamic range, from extremely soft to extremely loud, and can give phrases a majestic breadth. In the words of the late Newsweek critic Alan Rich, it was “a concert to take home and replay in the memory, more than once.”

Of all the concerts coming up, four evenings in May might prove to be the most wonderful of the season: the Belcea playing the complete Beethoven cycle. I wait especially for the last quartets, the pyramids of Beethoven’s ripe genius.

“There aren’t many musicians,” said David Soyer, the cellist of the Guarneri Quartet, “who can say that they’re doing exactly what they want to do.” Clearly playing quartets is different.

And seems to testify that a group of four is the perfect number.

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