Trust Haydn to provide the music for by far the most engrossing performance I heard at the Verbier Festival. Once again, having heard his music played with verve and appreciation by keen musicians, one wondered why more Haydn is not heard in concert, whether as symphonies, piano sonatas, or string quartets. It is not, after all, as if there is not enough of it to go around!
Haydn, more than perhaps any of the canon’s composers bar Mozart, requires rather better than mediocre performances for his excellence really to come across, and in his “Emperor” or “Kaiser” quartet from the Op. 76 set he certainly received one from the Quatuor Ébène. I have praised them to the hilt for Bachtrack before, and whether it is because of their heritage with jazz or whether it is because these four string players are simply very fine musicians, stratospheric expectations were once again surpassed. They have recorded Haydn already, albeit early in their careers, and ought to do so again.
The first movement’s opening chords spoke of the quality to ensue: they were immaculately balanced, with each singing differently to outline harmonic progress, and with each individual player only adding to the complete sound picture. From there, the intensity of playing grew greater and greater, as Haydn’s form was enacted with playing full of light and shade, ebb and flow. Individual phrases worked hand-in-hand with overall structure in a way truly pleasurable to behold. Development came with proper drama, and Haydn’s brilliance allowed the Ébènes to dig in first with a muddy rustic dance, then an effortlessly courtly masquerade, as the surprises continued all the way through to the coda. Crucially, they felt like surprises too.
This was as nothing compared to the length of line, the nobility of tone, and the heavenly unfolding of this quartet’s famous slow movement. A set of variations, but more a descant on a tune that, by quirk of history, has become the German national anthem, it was played by the Ébènes with a nobility that never once became false or empty grandeur as it made its way to a seraphic conclusion. Harmonic rhythm again came through in the minuet, despite the zeal with which the Ébènes tucked into its time-bending dismissal of barlines, while the trio exhibited a thoroughly aristocratic tenderness. A more youthful Sturm und Drang turbulence threatened to take over the finale, but it contrasted with such beauty of tone in phrases that recalled the slow movement that there was never any real risk of that. Inner parts delighted without ever taking away from the whole. This was Haydn as near to perfect as it comes.
Mendelssohn’s A minor quartet, written at the age of 17, takes a more symphonic (in the Romantic sense) view of the string quartet, and despite some interminable longueurs this precocious work just about succeeds, and certainly did in this heated performance. Thicker textures rarely prevented details coming through in a dark, vigorous first movement. The slow movement again benefited from seamless balancing as its subdued fugue slowly cast off its shackles and cast out beyond. A delightful Intermezzo led to a fiercely dramatic finale, insistent from its tremolo beginning, if not entirely clear what it was being insistent about. Material from the second and first movements returned, its anxieties now heightened, the first movement’s opening themes finally succeeding, hushedly, if not in triumph then at least in remembrance. Mendelssohn, too, needs his advocates, and found great ones here.
Sandwiched in between came the première of Edward Nesbit’s Night Dances, an eerie, uneasy work performed by the young Calidoré String Quartet. A series of dances refracted through a long structural arc, it begins with drooping glissandi and rhythms that only ever imply dances, as if they are hidden in the shadows. Funky at times, only whiny at others, this work intrigued throughout its not overlong duration, and it was performed with distinction by the Calidorés.
Having gone from a work composed in its author’s 60s, to Nesbit’s 20s, to Mendelssohn’s late teens, and with two quartets available, younger and larger were the only ways to go for an encore. The finale to Mendelssohn’s Octet (composed at age 13!) ensued, in an insatiably energetic performance that buzzed its way to a stunning finish.