Dallas — The string quartet is the most treacherously transparent way to make music. It is a great challenge for composers, and even more so for the performers. Those four independent players have to be perfectly in sync for a performance to work. This means precise ensemble and identical interpretation with matched tone quality, bowing, and intonation for a performance to work. To achieve this professional quartets practically live together, but the best of them start with a natural affinity for each other and take off from there.
It was obvious on Monday evening in Southern Methodist University’s Caruth Auditorium that such magic is the case with the four fresh-faced and perfectly matched set of French musicians that make up the Modigliani Quartet, who closed out the 2014-15 season for Dallas Chamber Music. It is little wonder that they have a wall full of wins in international competitions and a scrapbook bursting with glowing reviews amassed since their founding at the Paris Conservatory in 2003.
The first notes brought the audience of chamber music aficionados to full alert as we realized that something special was going on. They proceeded to burn the floor with quartets written by a wide range of composers: early Beethoven, Shostakovich’s first try at the form, and an overripe late romantic extravaganza by the lesser-known Ernö Dohnányi, a Hungarian composer who settled in Florida.
It is difficult to make individual judgments about the four players because of the capricious acoustics in Caruth. Placement on the stage and the location of your seat in the hall can change what you hear. However, with that caveat in mind, the quartet is well matched in sound and in the method of playing at any given moment. They use vibrato as a sauce that all four match up when applied. Their bow technique is similar, allowing them to use such refinements as slight adjustments of bow pressure in an expressive manner—adding subtle shades of color to the overall sound.
The two violinists, Philippe Bernhard and Loïc Rio, are fairly evenly matched with Bernhard possessing a warmer sound. Violist Laurent Marfaing is the standout, with a full and rich sound that has cello sonorities with violin overtones; quite remarkable. Cellist François Kieffer had the most trouble projecting his sound (at least to where I was sitting) and, as a result, lacked the same fully rounded sonority as the others.
Beethoven’s C minor Quartet (Op. 18, No. 4) suffered from some occasional overplaying, but that is really a curmudgeonly gripe when they gave it such an energetic performance.
It is impossible to overplay Shostakovich. He demands rough edges and wild contrasts, even in this rather more genteel piece. The Modigliani Quartet played this early work with an eye to the Shostakovich that was yet to come, while still keeping it in scale.
Moment of Geek: This work lacks the high drama you associate with Shostakovich’s better-known works, but this was his first attempt at writing for this most revealing of ensembles. Even then, he waited until he was in his 30s to give it a try. Later on, as the quartets took on a darker hue, the composer took all kinds of risks in both scoring and form—even toying with 12-tone and his preoccupation with death. An interesting side note: He had a jumpstart for his first quartet. The second movement was originally written for string quartet to go under the opening credits in a film score he wrote in the 1930’s.
The quartet was at their best in the Dohnányi’s. He is best known for sticking with tonality when it was decidedly out of fashion. However, he has the last laugh as his music is receiving a renaissance while his atonal colleagues are relegated to historical mention as transitional. This quartet dates from 1926 and is much more a harmonically adventurous child of its time than his later music. Chromatist harmonies, such as those found in Richard Strauss’ output at the time, and off beat rhythms abound.
This is exactly the approach the quartet took in playing this quartet. They gave it an expansive performance, full of rubato and dynamic swells, reveling in, rather than tidying up, the composer’s late romantic overindulgences.