A STRIKING VANCOUVER DEBUT FOR THE EHNES QUARTET
Ehnes Quartet (James Ehnes and Amy Schwartz-Moretti, violins; Richard O’Neill, viola; Edward Arron, cello): Music of Mozart, Janáček and Schubert, Playhouse, January 22, 2019.
For all the Ehnes Quartet has played an integral role in the Seattle Chamber Music Society, it has taken the ensemble quite a while to cross the border and make their Vancouver debut. One could hardly be disappointed: led by the celebrated Canadian violinist James Ehnes, this is a magnificent collection of musicians who share a kindred spirit, provide enviable tonal address and variety, and see the line of the music very well. Formed in 2011, they have advanced quickly: their Onyx disc of Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ and the Sibelius quartet has already been nominated for a Gramophone award, and they have recently performed the complete cycle of Beethoven String Quartets in Seoul.
Their performances of Mozart, Janáček and Schubert string quartets on this occasion added up memorably, not least because the group finds a natural enthusiasm to place beside their keen analytical strength and musicianship. Everything they attempted seemed interesting and fresh – suggesting a thirst for discovery and a real feeling for what the music is saying. Their sound exhibits great strength and solidity but still maintains a leanness overall: the group aims for transparency and intensity as a rule, saving their lovely sensual corporate blend for special moments. Perhaps a degree of eagerness can lead the group into tricky waters at times but, as was apparent at this concert, their spirit seems irrepressible and I was impressed the way Ehnes’ leadership could coax everyone into line at critical points in the music.
With his ultra-demanding schedule as a soloist, it has always intrigued me that the violinist would choose to invest so heavily in a string quartet at this point in his career. In fact, this concert followed right on his London Barbican performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. But chamber music performance is a natural outcome of the artist’s desire for further musical understanding. As Ehnes expressed in a 2017 interview, ‘my biggest motivation for the ensemble was repertoire – to be able to explore the vast quartet literature with three of my closest friends….Before we put the group together, I worried that I wouldn’t ever really know the Bartok or Beethoven quartets. I knew them only as a listener, but not from the inside.’
There was some ambiguity over whether this concert was starting with a Haydn Op. 76 quartet or one by Mozart: what surfaced was the latter’s final quartet, the last of the three Prussian Quartets written with King Friedrich Wilhelm’s cello in mind. This is new repertoire for the ensemble. I immediately liked the clean lines and directness in the opening Allegro, testifying to a conscientious study of the score. The voicings were estimable (and what an interesting combination of timbres) and Ehnes always ensured that the unfolding question and answer between the players was crystalline. Nonetheless, while the lyrical passages generally achieved the right fluidity, some of the composer’s more angular, thrusting statements in the lower strings came off as more emphatic and virtuosic than poised. At the same time, Edward Arron’s cello line might have been marginally more prominent throughout, though Richard O’Neill’s estimable viola always made its effect.
The Andante was a genuine highlight, achieving real concentration in the composer’s quiet valedictory progression. This playing struck me as unusually intelligent and feeling. There was a nice energy in the Minuet too, where its increasing musical complexity was firmly registered as the movement proceeded. It was the finale that might raise some eyebrows – imbued here with the truculence and rustic thrust of a Haydn rondo. There are indeed reasons why one might view this movement as close to Haydn: there are lots of strong accents and gyrations of pulse throughout and, amidst the rhythmic bustle, one can even hear the faint drone of bagpipes. But I think this reading was a bit excitable and rough for Mozart: the motion should be more quicksilver than supercharged. Overall, the performance came off as perceptive in detailing, rhythmically judicious, and close to the right scale but lacking occasionally in Mozartian elegance and fluidity. Certainly, very promising for a first effort.
Leoš Janáček’s two string quartets were both written in 1923, and masterfully explore the conjunction of inner turmoil, melancholy and mystery with more demonstrative expressions of anger and defiance. The idiom is quintessentially Czech, and one notable technical characteristic is the extensive use of ponticelli (bowing across the bridge) to convey either a mysterious foreboding or a more visceral physical threat. Both quartets cultivate a profound sense of loss; the first (‘Kreutzer Sonata’), the Tolstoyan tragedy of an elderly estranged women; the second (‘Intimate Letters’), an autobiographical disquisition on a consuming past love. I have long pondered how different the balance between melancholic musing and outward aggression should be in the two works, normally concluding that the first quartet was the more viscerally demonstrative. However, when the Pavel Haas Quartet performed that here a few years ago, I wrote, ‘by finding a quiet, haunting, but unmistakably Czech, melancholy from the opening and cutting this with passionate attack only selectively, they produced a greater balance and intimacy in the writing. The work came out freshly minted -- with more lyrical flow and mystery than I had previously heard.’ Which is an interesting prelude to saying that the performance by the Ehnes Quartet was almost the opposite: possibly the most intense and passionate treatment I have witnessed, full of jagged edges.
What stood out in the Ehnes performance was its sheer ardour and drama. The opening melancholic theme had such glow and luster, while the ponticelli were fully cutting and unforgiving. The seemingly innocent Polka (mimicking the corresponding movement in Smetana’s First Quartet) featured incredibly brazen outbursts. And the approach carried on with this type of intensity for the concluding movements, everything flowing out with full passion and sensuality, perhaps slightly larger than life. I naturally missed the sense of haunting mystery and underlying rhapsodic flow, but this more ‘hands on’ reading also added up with complete involvement and was wonderfully unified and exciting. The execution was at the highest level and what strength and power the ensemble displays in unison passages!
If the Janáček can be a challenging prospect, then Schubert’s last quartet can be more forbidding still – and even for a mature string quartet. With a symphonic opening movement running to over 20 minutes, featuring incessant structural alternation between major and minor keys and a defining role for the most tender violin motive over tremolo, there has to be some thought to moving this work forward. The second movement is no less extended and emotionally challenging as well, while the skipping rhythms of the finale require endurance and can easily test one’s patience for the composer’s ‘heavenly lengths’.
One approach to the opening Allegro molto moderato is to highlight the first part of the marking and choose a relatively quick speed, but then its struggle and yearning seem to occur more in isolated moments, rather than throughout its whole. At the same time, the structural repetition can become more incessant than illuminating. It was the masterly performance by the Quartetto Italiano in the late 1970s that instead paid attention to the molto moderato marking, allowing both the tender regret in the tremolo passages and the movement’s structural cogency to be integrated at a slower speed. Here every note of this movement is infused with melancholy and burden, as if the protagonist must continually lift larger and larger boulders to move forward. And the torment only gets deeper in the following Andante.
It would be unreasonable to expect a young ensemble to opt for a deliberate tempo for the opening movement, and the Ehnes Quartet didn’t. James Ehnes mined the beauty and vulnerability of the opening tremolo motive to perfection, but then a contrasting energy took over, establishing a much less burdened countenance: in fact, many times things skipped along rather enthusiastically with flickers of sunlight poking through. Overall, the playing was attentive and tight-knit, with moments of dramatic flourish and strong feeling to vary the terrain. Here Schubert is seen as more volatile emotionally (like Janacek?), alternating between an uncomplicated carefree world and one of great sorrow, and less consistently mired in his struggle. The return of the tremolo theme later on serves as a sudden recollection of Schubert’s actual pain.
The real burden begins in the Andante, with Edward Arron’s wonderfully restrained cello leading one into darkness, culminating in a stunning climax of torment. The reading of this movement was very committed and successful, with a fine narrative sense. The only thing that I found difficult to understand was the burst of lush romantic sentiment later on, which made the movement difficult to close effectively. The Scherzo was finely appointed with James Ehnes contributing beautifully sensitive playing in the Trio. The rhythmic point and varied dynamics of the finale are always difficult to negotiate and, barring an occasional brusqueness and a slight over-conscientiousness in articulating counterpoint, the musicians maintained a fine tempo and line through the proceedings. They carried the forgiving anthemic theme with real feeling and nobility, and the piece ended as it should – the resolution of an extraordinary journey. This is a most difficult work to bring off.
This concert was a splendid test for the Ehnes Quartet, and I was absolutely taken by their commitment to the music, tonal strength and transparency, and technical virtuosity. Even more important, the group seems to think out each work in their own terms, which keeps everything fresh and involved. I enthusiastically await their return.
© Geoffrey Newman 2019