Attending a performance only consisting of Beethoven String Quartets is always a rare treat, and Cuarteto Casals succeeded in impressing the audience tonight at Suntory Hall’s Blue Rose Hall. For any string quartet, playing all of Beethoven’s sixteen in a matter of a few days would definitely be a highlight of the quartet’s career. Cuerteto Casals, on the second night of its Beethoven’s cycle, certainly managed to deliver the gems to the audience at their full potential. However, for those who have not heard the Casals, it will be nothing like you'd heard before.

Cuarteto Casals © Suntory Hall
Cuarteto Casals
© Suntory Hall

Each renowned string quartet is unique and it should be, as each ensemble carries something special and different. Such differences distinguish the ensemble from others, and such distinguished differences are what label the quartet as highly artistic, expressive, impressive. In the case of the Casals, it is the highly unique sonority. Casals uses Baroque bows, yes all four of them, but not all their instruments are period instruments. In a very general sense, Baroque bows create a more pale and opaque sound, and musical nuances are mostly created by bow control. But when matched on modern instruments, it is increibly intriguing. Casals’ special soundscape is created by this component, and is proven to be a clever implementation. Of course, all this would be meaningless if the ensemble had a poor taste or skill. The Casals’ technical impressiveness seems almost overshadowed because of its striking sonority.

First in the programme was Beethoven’s fourth quartet, one of his “early” works. His six early quartets still recollect Haydn and Mozart in some ways, but start to show more Beethoven’s genius. His deep musical passion shows especially in the first and the last movement, in both lyrical and gaudy sections. The Casals’ strength is inarguably in its ability to express music consistently in convincing manner, despite the surprising Baroque sonority coming from relatively modern instruments.

The symphony-like composition of the Beethoven’s String Quartet no. 9 in C major is a signature work of Beethoven’s “middle” period, and the exquisite level of the ensemble’s artistry was met, creating a breathtaking synergy. Technical and musical expression is again perfectly met with Casals’ skills, at both lyrical and flashy passages.

The Quartet no. 14 followed, a seven-movement work that is to be performed without pause between the movements. The Casals’ intriguing sonority with uncompromised technical abilities, supported by the ensemble’s deep understanding of the music, made the audience forget that this work is nearly forty minutes. Beethoven’s late quartets are doubtless the epitome of his oeuvre, and the Casals’ execution of this monumental work deserves a huge cheer. For any string quartet, maintaining flawless intonation throughout is a challenge, but the Casals sounded like a single sixteen-stringed instrument, an ideal goal for a quartet to achieve. Rhythmic flow and accuracy was always pinpoint, matched with such wide range of dynamics. Their sound balance was ideal, and the astonishing Blue Rose Hall surely maximized ensemble’s talent.

For string quartet music fanatics, the sound style that Casals possesses can be a double-edged sword, as it shatters one’s aural expectation. However, the extremely high-level performance of the ensemble – at least in the three works I heard tonight – proved itself unique in a convincing manner. Often, a performance of a classical piece takes the audience back in time to the era that it was composed. In the Casals’ case, it does not take the audience back in time but offers what classical music can be at this very moment by incorporating “old school” bows on newer instruments and using technically advanced musical accessories (tablets as sheet music), at a modern day’s sound-engineered venue. Cuerteto Casals may not be for every educated and trained ear, but I highly recommend trying it and deciding it for yourself.