Mandelring Quartett: Works by Haydn, Goldschmidt and Brahms, Playhouse, March 1, 2016.

The Mandelring Quartett has had a particularly close relationship with German/Jewish composer Berthold Goldschmidt (1903-1996), first meeting the composer in 1989, and recording his three extant quartets as some of the earliest discs of their career.  The ensemble asked the composer about the possibility of a fourth but, though unlikely, it managed to surface in 1993, dedicated to (and later recorded by) the Mandelrings.  Goldschmidt is one of the principal composers deemed by the Nazis to be a producer of ‘degenerate music’, and the last 20 years have seen a notable revival in interest in such composers, not least since Decca released a remarkably illuminating series of recordings under the title 'Entartete Musik: Music Suppressed by the Third Reich.'  Many of these composers luckily fled Germany – Goldschmidt went to England – but others were not so lucky, and the enduring tragedy remains that much of this fine music received its first performance only well after the war, and a great deal remains in oblivion even now.

Goldschmidt’s Quartet No. 2 was written in 1936, and was perhaps lucky that it had to wait only until 1953 for its first performance -- by the London String Quartet at Royal Festival Hall.  Although Goldschmidt was eventually deemed a ‘conservative’ composer, and largely ignored, this work is striking for its energetic drive and structural tightness, somehow wedding this to an intriguingly eccentric lyrical flourish.  While a sliding tonality pervades the work, it is remarkable just how cogent the opening Allegro is.  It pivots on a skittish, catchy little motive that allows endless development, but we invariably return to it with renewed delight. In the process, little episodes of almost bizarre lyrical statement spring forth for a second, only to vanish as quickly as they appear.  Perhaps there is the hint of a Viennese ballroom, but the reference is so elliptical, so out of the blue, that these passages come to one as quite original.  The ensemble truly gave us all the brazen energy one could wish for, and their incorporation of the fleeting lyrical gestures was seamless.

The following Scherzo maintains this energy, possibly pushes it more insistently, only to wind down to the Elegy (‘Folia’), where a bittersweet, strangely off-center, lyricism takes hold.  Since the term ‘folie’ indicates ‘madness’, one can feel the direction we are headed.  Here we often find the post-Romantic angst of the New Vienna School and Alban Berg, but in the distilled question and answer between the instruments, and in its fugal allusions, it is the model of late Beethoven that figures strongly.  Wisps of Mahler and Zemlinsky also appear. The Elegy moves almost symphonically, often very slowly, and finishes pianissimo. It has a definite originality, hits the deepest emotions, but perhaps does not possess the last degree of integration.  The finale was riveting, on the surface carefree and playful, but one soon discovered a macabre sinew in it, dancing phrases explosively leaping forth in the most sensual and bizarre way.  Somehow these wild lyrical explosions seemed to be the full realizations of the lyrical fragments that popped in and out of the first movement.  This was emphatically rewarding, and one cannot speak too highly of the Mandelring’s perception and execution.

The Mandelring’s style seemingly fits modern works to a tee, but I have previously felt that their vigorous intensity and strong, precise voicings do not always mesh completely with traditional works.  That said, their rendering of the Haydn Quartet, Op. 71, No. 2 was quite impressive, having a robust energy and discipline in the opening and closing movements, and a nicely integrated feeling in the two middle movements.  I found this admirably straightforward.

The demanding Brahms Quartet, Op. 51, No.1 was even more about drive and energy. The opening Allegro certainly had a grip, but here it seemed slightly too unremitting and light on lyrical repose.  The Romanze featured beautifully balanced articulation, yet I wished that some of the playing was softer and that phrases breathed a little more easily.  I think the same deficiencies carried to the next movement, making it more routine than it should be and hiding its subtle sense of struggle and wistfulness.  The finale was a study in dramatic force and motion.  There was a lot of precision and weight in this playing, which made for bold effect, but the overall interpretation did not strike me as fully finished.  

The highlight of this concert was the Goldschmidt quartet, played superbly.  I certainly feel inspired to hear the composer’s other three works in this genre, and perhaps go much beyond those. 


© Geoffrey Newman 2016