On the Right Path
Weill Recital Hall
Franz Joseph Haydn: Quartet in B-Flat Major Op. 76, No. 4 ("Sunrise")
Gyorgy Ligeti: Quartet No. 2
Johannes Brahms: Quartet in C Minor Op. 51, No. 1
Hugo Wolf Quartet
Jehi Bahk and Regis Bringolf (violins), Wladimir Kossjanenko (viola), Florian Berner (cello)
No one was more upbeat during his last years than Haydn. Fresh from his triumphant time in London the master had only to write one mass per year to fulfill his obligation but chose instead to refocus his energies on creativity and set out to fashion his greatest works for posterity. Out of the period came the Mass in Time of War, Die Schopfung, and the six string quartets for Count Erdody. The "Sunrise" Quartet is the brightest of these and the young Hugo Wolf Quartet brilliantly articulated the clear light of Haydn's personal renascence. This ensemble was formed at the Hochschule fuer Musik in Vienna in 1993 and has already won international acclaim and the permission of the Hugo Wolf Society to use the highly skilled practitioner (and ultimate victim) of Romanticism as their namesake. Already they "breathe" as a unit and lovingly phrase these rich melodies with no hint of dissension, a rare quality in such a newly formed group. Mr. Berner showed himself a particularly strong cellist in the rollicking Menuetto, his phrasing reminiscent of the most lovably oafish figures in the Beethoven Pastorale Symphony. The only disappointment is perhaps consistent with the youthfulness of the quartet. They have yet to acquire a truly burnished tone and, particularly in the case of the first violinist Mr. Bahk, need to place themselves in a position to become recipients of much finer instruments than they presently own. However, this should come with time.
No such caveat is necessary for the sonic universe of Gyorgy Ligeti (with the Juilliard Orchestra performance of Atmospheres on Wednesday it was a real treat to hear two Ligeti pieces in the same week) as these Viennese scholars are expertly adept in the contemporary idiom (one of their coaches is composer Gyorgy Kurtag). Modeled on Webern's Five Movements the Ligeti is a cornucopia (or phantasmagoria) of instrumental effects with an occasional note or two played straight. The pianissimo flutter-tounging near the bridge which is the emblem of the first piece, Allegro Nervoso, is right out of Atmospheres as is the elephantine written score which barely balances on the players' music stands. The third movement, Come un Meccanismo di Precisione, is almost all pizzicato like the third movement of the Webern but also conveys Ligeti's image of the clock as the modern Mephisto, recalling his Poeme Symphonic for 100 metronomes. The members of the Wolf Quartet are obviously the forces to perform this arcane music seriously and, considering their extremely long silent vigils before each movement, reverentially. Ligeti lives now in Vienna and hopefully knows about the performances of this group. His guidance would be invaluable to them as they establish themselves as a force in contemporary music.
The real pleasure of the evening was the Brahms. For some reason the three Brahms string quartets are overlooked by music lovers (and not just Wagnerians) and are not accorded their proper place in his admittedly spectacular chamber music output. After as many as 20 rejected attempts Brahms finally wrote two quartets that he felt were worthy successors to the mighty Beethoven oeuvre (actually this Quartet No. 1 was the second to be published). The Wolf members were particularly commendable in their choice throughout of a broad approach to phrasing as befitted this rich and lusty score, always personally reminding me of a collection of sea shanties. The old man of the group Mr. Kossjanenko (he was born in the 1960's) performed his featured parts with exceptional cantabile beauty and may be the stylistic guru of this particular ensemble. Again Mr. Bahk sounded somewhat screechy in solo passages but I believe that this will be remedied with maturity and a good Strad.
So many concerts rely on gimmickry these days that it was a refreshing musical experience to simply be able to attend a performance in an intimate and lavish setting (Weill is one of the most satisfying halls in America) played by a dedicated and honest set of musicians. The Hugo Wolf Quartet will be touring in Europe this season with stops in Amsterdam, Paris, Vienna, Athens, Brussels, Birmingham and Cologne. This experience of traveling and living together will be a good builder of unity for them as they continue to meld into that rarest of all musical commodities, a chamber group that can play as one great artist. Certainly at their stage of development they show enormous promise to become worthy interpreters of their cherished musical legacy.
Frederick L. Kirshnit