The début performance of Quatuor Modigliani at the Lucerne Festival surveyed three distinct styles (Classical, Romantic, Impressionistic), yet much of the tone production was the same: aggressive, near-reckless and searing (a preponderance of bow strokes above mezzo-forte seemed drawn—like the moth to a flame—ever closer to the bridge).
For those who enjoy their string quartets with this sort of passionate verve, these readings must have satisfied at every riveting climax and dash to the double bar. For others, a much more generous employment of subtle understatement would have broadened the undeniable dramatic effects considerably.
Haydn’s delectable “Sunrise” quartet lifted off warmly, with a well-balanced sound, only to slip into a few instances of ragged passagework that may well have vanished if the metronome had been lowered a notch; the repeats always improved the accuracy. The “Adagio” was beautifully rendered and kept together as the four young men used eye contact and synchronized breath to ensure every phrase began as one; employing the later technique more frequently during the phrasing—here and elsewhere—would add yet another layer of clarity to the music no matter what its era.
The “Menuet” (with its marvellous melodic tease that Haydn never pays off in the first violin part) was brisk; its Trio a welcome oasis of relative calm still wanting a tad more harmonic weight to reveal its secrets. Once settled (the ever-so-light pick-up nearly slipped off the mark at the opening bell), the Finale readily flew by much to the delight of the attentive crowd.
Ravel’s only work for chamber music’s most homogeneous ensemble provided many of the finest moments of the concert. Violist Laurent Marfaing brought his long lines (notably “Très lent”) to glorious life and was tonally/musically matched before taking the art even deeper into the soul when it was cellist François Kieffer’s turn to lead. Key to this remarkable work is the inner interactions: second violinist Loïc Rio showed his mastery of length, vibrato and dynamics whether paired with Kieffer or Marfaing. Leading with authority, if at times adding a touch too-affected portamenti, violinist Philippe Bernhard was ever-capable in realizing the composer’s near-obsession with continuous ebb and flow.
The second movement’s spectacularly executed riot of pizzicato (and more especially the more elegant unbowed punctuation in the contrasting section) made this the best of the bunch. The incredible amount of anger—dare we say testosterone—witnessed in the final “Vif et agité” became so heated and coarse (at times pushing the pitch into the dark side) that some sort of tonic was desperately wanted by journey’s end.
Instead, the Mendelssohn F Minor Quartet continued the tough-love treatment—save and except for viola/cello work in the second movement’s Trio and some of the glorious “Adagio”—until Bernhard threw everything he had at the bravura late-inning passages whose resultant marking could only be described as “molto franticoso.” Exciting it most certainly was but let’s hope that these extremely talented musicians might also discover other ways than unrelenting edginess and speed to hold their listeners from first bar to the last. JWR