Arcanto Quartet, Works by Purcell, Britten and Beethoven, Playhouse, November 18, 2015

It is not often that one hears a less well-known string quartet for a minute or two and concludes decisively that they are at a higher level of accomplishment than virtually all others.  Yet that was what I felt at this concert by the Arcanto Quartet.  This ensemble, formed in 2002 and who records for Harmonia Mundi, is hardly a household name even if its members are frequently in the spotlight as soloists: Jean-Guihen Queyras is one of the finest young cellists around today, Tabea Zimmermann has long established herself as an illustrious violist with remarkable tonal colour, and there could hardly be a more sensitive and intelligent violinist than Antje Weithaus.  Second violin Daniel Sepec has been a force in ‘authentic’ performance, collaborating with the likes of Andreas Staier.  The individual exploits of these artists have been certainly more visible than their corporate endeavors. 

The ensemble previously gave a very fine concert here in 2010 but I am quite stunningly impressed this time round.  A moment or two of hearing their remarkably clean and full tone, the individuality of the individual voices, all put together with such disarming technical discipline, makes one sit up immediately.  Nonetheless, what makes the more enduring impression is their consistent skill in controlling a complex palette of expression, and negotiating it with such intelligence.  They always seem to know exactly where they are going and communicate so directly at the highest level of insight and intensity. Perhaps one might want to place them in the same circle as the Alban Berg Quartet on the basis of their pristine tonal qualities and transparency, though they seem less suave.  Moreover, as they often play with little vibrato and with such command of soft, fine textures, one also might be tempted to place them closer to other modernist ensembles that specialize in Berg, Webern and beyond. However, just having said that, witnessing some of the remarkable intimacy in their quiet playing takes one in the opposite direction – perhaps back to the Vegh Quartet or other elite ‘authentic’ ensembles such as Quatuor Mosaiques.  That may not miss the mark either: both Erich Hobarth (Mosaiques) and Tabea Zimmermann had Sandor Vegh as a teacher.

Somewhat adventurously, the first half of the concert explored English music, Purcell and Britten in particular, and it turned out to be a fine choice.  There was no mistaking the sheer involvement in their playing of the former’s Three Fantasias.  This was just exceptional in its refinement and purity, yet digging fully into Purcell’s wonderful strain of melancholy. Their rendering was dynamically aware, flexible in flow, with Weithaus’ violin a true model of sensitivity and beauty.  Perhaps the modern instruments made this too heavy by contemporary standards?  Absolutely not, it sounded authentic.  Bowing was light and vibrato was sparingly employed; in fact the cellist Queyras hardly used any vibrato at all.

I have always admired Benjamin Britten’s Third Quartet since it was premiered by the Amadeus Quartet just over 40 years ago.  For all it has obvious ties to the composer’s opera Death in Venice, I have always thought of it as a very pure, distilled work and grand testimony to the composer’s ingenuity in abstract construction.  It is precisely the pure and distilled dimensions which highlighted the Arcanto reading.  There was no attempt to find any ‘romantic’ embroidery; this was just musical construction at its most glorious. The only impressionistic reference is to Venice’s water, visualized perhaps as a dock gently rocking in the first movement and softly creaking at the opening of the last. These ‘water’ passages were done splendidly through quite astounding feats of instrumental control, minimalist in expression but in fact exactly conveying how shifting water might sound.

There was a fine sense of development in the first movement, kept tight and transparent, and never burdening the movement’s motion by any over-adornment or shaping. One noted how the unanimity of the second violin and viola anchored much of the pacing, and how the first violin could move from stronger attack to a beautiful yielding posture so effectively. The second and fourth movements are tougher and more emphatic, but again it was the awareness of the structure of the music, not its brazen power, that stood out.  That said, without forcing things at all, the weight and strength of the ensemble’s corporate sound was stunning.  For me, it was the lovely, slow third movement, entitled Solo, that was the highlight, since the ensemble recognized that its feeling is absolutely pure, almost disembodied, and beyond human sentiment.  Their penetration of its parsimonious quiet contours and their control over its slowly creeping development was little short of spellbinding.  Much the same concentration informed the closing Recitative and Passacaglia, never pushed, always discerning, often intimate, and magnificently portraying the sense of consuming burden that builds toward the end.  This was of course Britten’s last work. 

I enjoyed this performance at least as much as the very fine one I saw a few years ago by the Takacs Quartet (now recorded on Hyperion).  One actually wonders how the quartet brought it off, given one adversity: the air conditioning system started adding some musical growls of its own early on, and the performance had to be delayed after the opening movement to investigate. I am not sure that the problem was ever fully solved, and it is amazing that they could even play the third movement with this distraction present.

How would the talents of this group stand out in more conventional repertoire: Beethoven’s Op. 59, No. 3, the most popular of his Razumovsky quartets?  Immediately, I felt the same thing as I did at the beginning of the concert: the Arcanto Quartet was almost in a league of their own for all the fascinating thoughtful dimensions combined and the sheer electricity achieved.  The Introduzione was suspended in such a timeless, searching way, but then it sprung out into the main development with such joy and delight, carrying the motion forward unstoppably.  This was certainly powerful, but nothing felt rushed, because the ensemble also built in a strong lyrical flow underneath.  The famous Andante, with its cello pizzicato, started with great poise but maintained an intimate scale, again moving out to a lyrical flow, sometimes almost rhapsodic.  The flow perhaps had a rustic element, and occasionally Tabea Zimmerman’s viola would cut the texture with unremitting, earthy force, only to settle back into the basic flow again.  In this buildup and recovery motion, I was taken unmistakably back to the development of the opening movement of Op. 59, No. 1.

One does not usually make too much fuss over the Menuetto transition to the scintillating finale, but this time it was noteworthy.  It really was an elegant dance in which Beethoven paid homage to his teacher, Haydn. There was considerable lyrical shape and nobility too: the feeling was almost identical to Haydn’s final quartet, Op. 103.   The finale had all the white heat it should have, and even if one just focused on execution, this was pretty overwhelming.  But it was more than that: the articulation was so precise, and the accents so sensitively and carefully placed, that everything seemed like one intimate conversation, having its own autonomous intrigue, no matter how the powerful the dynamics and motion were.

Let’s hope that the Arcanto Quartet gains real visibility very soon.  Their technical control and tonal output is absolutely at the highest level, but it is their interpretative sense that is really striking.  They can probe musical complexity with the greatest imagination, and everything seemingly comes out fresh, revealing and spontaneous.  There is not one trace of contrivance in this playing; it is pure art.

© Geoffrey Newman 2015