Pierre Liscia-Beaurenaut has one foot in violin playing and the other in music journalism. Every month, Pierre invites you to the other side of the curtain, to discover the daily life of a young professional musician doing the rounds of rehearsal rooms and auditions as well as meeting the great musicians of our time.

Pierre Liscia-Beaurenaut
© Leila Schütz

March 25th. I pick up my phone, about to make what may well be the most important decision of my young career. A decision that wipes the slate clean, that calls into question all of my musical plans for the next few years and that, at the moment, leaves me dazed and stunned.

But let's go back to where it all began: it's the 24th of February and, having just returned from my umpteenth orchestral competition in Germany, I have to face the cameras for the evening event that is the Victoires de la Musique Classique. Just a few hours before the event, I received a rather unusual message – the sort of proposal that a musician rarely receives. A friend tells me that the Quatuor Métamorphoses is looking for a new second violin and that they are inviting me for an audition. Normally, I would have passed up this opportunity: I was convinced that I was all set for work in an orchestra. But still: the Métamorphoses are already enjoying great success on French and European stages. Joining them is the promise of travelling around Europe to work with the greatest. Moreover, it should be noted that the string quartet enjoys a special aura in the music world. It is a highly demanding genre that requires an enormous amount of time, motivation and a good dose of diplomacy. A subtle cocktail of pressure and quasi-monastic promiscuity, which can quickly become explosive, in words as well as in gestures. In short, being a quartet player is a bit like being a member of a scandalous rock band: if the tabloids paid more attention to classical music news, some quartets would be as much under the media glare as Oasis or Nirvana!

So I decide to take the first test, convincing myself that I'm not committing to anything. "For the tests, we would like you to play this Haydn, that Beethoven, and the Debussy Quartet... So my problems are only just beginning. Three quartets in one week? Really? That's more than I put together in a year in the classes at the Conservatoire! And we're talking about chamber music here: there's no question of just bashing out the notes and the rhythm! Mechanically, I put the headphones on my ears and play my second violin part on top of the recordings of renowned quartet players... exactly as I used to do with Perlman a decade ago! Fortunately, there is a beautiful version of the Quartet, Op.59 no.3 on Youtube that can work on, by the Métamorphoses themselves at the Wigmore Hall. So I can understand their way of phrasing, their timings, their rubatos. But alas! The worst is yet to come...

Did I ever mention that I adore Haydn? Because in a few days, I learned to hate him. Technically speaking, the Haydn quartet I was asked to work on is without doubt the easiest of the three. But the proper performance of a string quartet, especially those of the classical period, depends very much on a subtle principle, a secret alchemy that can only be achieved through patience and years of listening to each other: so-called "harmonic accuracy". Underneath this barbaric term lies a set of principles that even some of the most battle-hardened musicians find difficult to understand. So we often hear that we are playing either rightly or wrongly. But there are actually several ways of playing in tune, depending on whether you want to emphasise a melody (this is called tempered tuning) or a harmony (hence the name harmonic tuning). The soloists in concertos generally play in tempered pitch: each note is individually emphasised so as to obtain a sound that stands out from the orchestral mass, a truly solo sound. In the second violin parts, on the other hand, the aim is generally to embellish the harmony: the goal is not to obtain four individual sounds, but one overall  ensemble sound.

As a result, it's often harmonic accuracy that prevails in a string quartet, and consequently the placement of each note on the neck must be marked out according to its place in the chord. In other words, I will play a G differently according to whether my cellist colleague is playing an E or an E flat in the bass. This work is obviously done by all four of us, but in my case, I had to anticipate it at home, alone, by analysing each of Haydn's chords to determine on which note I should base myself to play, harmonically, in the most accurate way possible once the whole quartet was assembled. But listening to a lone violinist play in harmonic accuracy will sound like a bad underground performer playing a three-stringed instrument in the rush hour in a heatwave. It's torture, I can tell you!

"The second violin must have clear and sure intonation", writes Haydn himself
© Quatuor opus 64 n° 2 de Haydn (éditions Bärenreiter)

So here we are on March 4th, the day of the audition. The day before, I had lunch with a violinist friend, a great quartet player in her own right, to cheer me up. But after a few minutes, I burst out laughing when I discovered that she was also taking part. The world of musicians is definitely a small one, and the competition will be tough...

But now I have to concentrate, as the first notes of the Haydn sound. Which, in truth, gives me confidence: the Métamorphoses have five years' experience, and it's a treat to blend in with an ensemble that's already well established. But all the same, what a balancing act! Between glances at my score, which is studded with arrows according to the pitch of each note (did I mention harmonic accuracy?), glances in the direction of the cello's rhythmic bass, and the visual back and forth between the viola and the first violin, I am spinning like a weather vane. After the audition, the quartet asks to include me in one of their work sessions. How do you manage the rhythmic irruption of the other three members of the quartet in the middle of the first violin's piano melody, on a very tense harmonic chord played fortissimo? Each one expresses his opinion, answers each other, the discussion follows a very interesting course. When suddenly...

"What do you think, Pierre?"

Deathly silence. I see three pairs of eyes fixed on me. I think I remember stammering something about the squareness, the harmonic tension of the sensitive note... We test my proposal. And it works!

I go home comforted by this first impression. But as the possibility of success grows, doubts arise: do I really want to give up my dreams of brassy Wagnerian orchestras in favour of the intimate mellowness of the string quartet? Those famous orchestral academies I've been hoping to join for so long generally no longer admit candidates who have reached the venerable age of 27. And without an academy on your CV, it's very difficult to hope to join a real orchestra in Germany... The quartet warned me: the auditions may take a while. And I have to think about my end-of-year competitions! My brain is seething. Thoughts run wild and raucous in my head like the lines of a Beethoven quartet.

And there we are: it's March 25th in Lyon, and I get a call from the Quartet.

"Pierre, we really fell for you. We'd like you to start straightaway."

Time stops. I stare at my feet with a haggard look. I remember my first stirrings as a teenaged quartet player, my classes during my studies with the wonderful Artemis and Danel Quartets. But I also see myself at the Lyon Auditorium, lifted up to the radiant lights of the ceiling by the Promethean energy of Mahler's Seventh Symphony. I realise in an instant that I am turning a page in my musician's career. I also consider the enormous task that awaits a young ensemble of artists in the midst of a coronavirus crisis. And I accept immediately.

Our violin-playing columnist with his new colleagues
© Guillaume Potier, Rens Lipsius Studio/Ideal Artist House, Paris

What will happen to this sudden marriage of four individuals? The distant horizon is murky, of course, but these days, tomorrow is no less so. Now, to the harmony of the instruments will have to be added the harmony of people, personalities and spirits. A page is being turned, and on the one to come, everything is to be written. I am happy, dear readers, to announce that from now on this page will be written by four people. And I promise you that when I write it, I will always have in mind these few notes by Haydn.