INTERVIEW: THREE DECADES OF SUPREME MUSIC-MAKING FROM THE QUATUOR MOSAIQUES
Ask any lover of chamber music which recordings in their collection are their most prized, and I am sure that those by the Quatuor Mosaiques will always get mentioned in their short list. Starting from their award-winning Haydn Op. 20 quartets (1990) -- that really gave the world a signal to the importance of these works – all the way to the last Op. 76, 77 compositions, a standard was set not only for period performance of Haydn quartets but for all performance of these quartets. Each recording was truly a jewel, combining scholarship, exquisite phrasing and dynamics, and remarkable depth, beauty and insight. And what we think of these recordings now is not diminished from what we thought then. But the exalted sequence of recordings did not stop there. Their Mozart ‘Haydn Quartets’ were equally compelling. And anyone who has heard their Schubert ‘Death and the Maiden’ either live or in recording knows how riveting, true and complete that experience is. Later, we moved to the Beethoven, Op. 18 quartets, and for all we thought we had heard it all, the Mosaiques finds a revealing beauty and space that make us live them all over again. There are two interesting things about all these recordings. First, the ensemble’s interpretative strength and sensitivity made the performances compelling whether or not they were played on period instruments. Second, the variety of unique timbres produced and the absolute clarity in the way that individual voices interact did actually provide a clinic on what period performance -- and gut string articulation in particular -- could achieve.
It is one thing for an ensemble to be modest and self-effacing, but the fact of the matter is that, formed in 1985, Quatuor Mosaiques are now approaching their 30th Anniversary. They continue performing throughout the world, often at the most distinguished venues and festivals. I cannot think of a period-style chamber ensemble that has had more longevity, and they are now entering the range of the truly long-lived quartets overall. In my opinion, there are few string quartets of the past half-century who could be regarded as more pioneering and influential than the Mosaiques. Of course, both violinist Erich Hobarth and cellist Christophe Coin have held many different posts at the same time. Both have conducted and, at one point, made some headway into the Haydn trios, recording with pianist Patrick Cohen.
The purpose of this interview is to simply catch up with this great ensemble as they approach three decades of artistic commitment and see what their perspectives are on their own past and future, and the development of historically-informed performance. The ensemble had just given a delightful Vancouver concert featuring the Haydn, Op. 103, Mozart, K. 421 and Schumann’s third quartet, followed by Christophe Coin’s own charming transcription of pieces from the latter’s Kinderszenen as an encore. I was very fortunate to be able to sit down briefly with all members of the ensemble; Erich Hobarth and Christophe Coin acted as spokesmen.
1. THREE OF YOUR QUARTET’S MEMBERS ARE VIENNESE AND OF ALL OF YOU MET WHILE PLAYING FOR NIKOLAUS HARNONCOURT'S CONCENTUS MUSICUS IN VIENNA. TO WHAT EXTENT DO YOU THINK THAT YOUR INTERPRETATIVE STYLE STILL REFLECTS THIS CITY’S TRADITION OF MUSIC MAKING?
Erich Hobarth: I don’t think we were influenced that much by our surroundings or, say, the string playing in the Philharmonic in particular. My main influence was that of my teacher, Sandor Vegh, a violinist with a very unique style and a marvelous personality. He taught and encouraged a whole generation of musicians and I was very fortunate to be a member of the Vegh Quartet for the last three years of its existence.
Christophe Coin: We certainly inherited the great tradition of European string quartet playing and its focus. But I think from our original idea of a Mosaiques Ensemble, we were seeking something very specific artistically. In a mosaic, every detail is seen to have been brilliantly thought out, yet the eye is also capable of apprehending the picture as a whole. It is the same with music: you have to work on the details, you have to create the best possible listening conditions, and then get the distance just right so that the listener can see all the individual elements and the whole work of art at the same time. We believed that playing with gut strings might get us closer to realizing this goal.
2. JUST HOW MUCH OF THE STRING QUARTET REPERTOIRE DID YOU INTEND TO COVER?
EH: We always aimed to be at the center of the string quartet repertory: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Everything rotates around those four composers. But we eventually recognized that the quartet repertory of this time period is so large that we were in danger of ignoring a great deal of good music that is not played any more. So we have also concentrated on discovering ‘unknown’ composers up to the early romantic period, such as Arriaga, Werner, Jadin, Gross, and Boëly. We have also played many romantic composers, Mendelssohn and Schumann, for example. We did not really want to move past the time when gut strings were not common anymore.
3. HAVE YOU EVER DONE WORKS BEYOND THAT -- TRULY MODERN WORKS?
EH: Yes, we have actually performed Bartok’s first two string quartets, the Debussy quartet, and a short piece by Webern.
4. AS A FOUNDING ENSEMBLE OF HISTORICALLY-INFORMED STRING QUARTET PERFORMANCE, YOU WILL ADMIT THAT THERE IS STILL SOME AMBIGUITY OVER WHAT ‘AUTHENTIC’ REALLY MEANS. IS IT SIMPLY THAT YOU USE GUT STRINGS, OR IS IT THAT YOU ARE TRYING TO RECREATE THE TYPE OF PERFORMANCE THAT MIGHT HAVE ACTUALLY OCCURRED IN A COMPOSER’S LIFETIME? FOR EXAMPLE, YOU PLAYED A SCHUMANN QUARTET TODAY. IS THIS THE WAY IT MIGHT HAVE SOUNDED IN THE 1840’S?
CC: For all the research one might do, it is still very difficult to find out how musicians played at that time. The techniques of the 19th C. virtuosos were more extreme than in the previous century, so you would likely find several schools (one being that of Viotti) going in very different directions. There would therefore be very different interpretations coexisting in Schumann’s Leipzig, much like one finds in current times. Nonetheless, I would think many ensembles might share the deep, dark sound that has been the tradition of Leipzig orchestras to the present day.
5. WOULD THE SAME THING HOLD FOR INSTRUMENTAL TECHNIQUES?
CC: I have also done a little study of cello techniques from that period – and one would find the same differences. Each cellist would have special fingerings, techniques, and habits of their own, so it is impossible to say that any one technical style was ‘the’ style of that time.
6. PERHAPS ‘AUTHENTIC’ IS ALSO ABOUT FEELING?
EH: Yes, a lot of it comes from the heart. What does the music truly say? How should you express that? From this perspective, it is quite possible for a young modern ensemble to play a Haydn quartet ‘authentically’ in the sense that they faithfully express all the natural feelings in the work. To be fair, there have been many very fine quartet performances from ensembles that make no pretense to being historically-informed. They are different from ours but as worthy as ours. We cannot say absolutely “we know how it goes.
7. HAVING PARTICIPATED IN HISTORICALLY-INFORMED QUARTET PLAYING SINCE ITS INCEPTION, HOW DO YOU THINK THE TRADITION HAS DEVELOPED?
EH: Well, there are some new quartets now, but still not that many. Just after we started, there was the Salomon Quartet; the Quartet of the Library of Congress also employed a very old style. But, really, not many followed and few are very visible. What we take pride in is that our way of playing did influence the interpretations of many younger quartets, even those that were not committed to period performance. For example, we can see this in the way that many ensembles now play the minuet of a Haydn quartet.
8. DO YOU THINK YOUR INTERPRETATION OF CORE WORKS HAS CHANGED MUCH OVER TIME?
EH: I don’t think it is the same – definitely not. But the degree to which things have changed is hard to describe by ourselves. Everyone develops over time: there is no stand-still in life. I am not the same person I was ten years ago, and neither are the others. So, our reactions to each other in performance have probably altered in subtle ways. But it is you, the audience that can probably judge the end result better than we can.
9. WOULD YOU LIKE TO RE-RECORD ANY OF THE WORKS YOU HAVE DONE BEFORE?
CC: No, I don’t think any of us have the time or the luxury to re-record. We live in a different age now and it is simply not possible to have a recording programme like we used to have. The market is not healthy enough and not that many people would likely be interested in a new integral set of Haydn quartets, for example.
10. SO, WHAT ARE THE BIG THINGS FOR THE FUTURE?
EH: We will be happy recording more Beethoven. We have only put down the Op. 18 quartets so far. It is the late quartets that we really want to concentrate on now. And we want to keep on discovering new composers that no one plays. Have you ever heard of the string quartet of Charles Gounod?
© Geoffrey Newman 2014