Where's the best place to look in a string quartet concert? Is there somewhere to fix your eyes that will help to understand the flow, the ever-changing mood of the music, and bring it to life? I can vividly remember once hearing the classic Borodin Quartet playing Shostakovich, and can still see how every nuance of the drama was written so intensely in the Marcel Marceau-like shifts of expression on cellist Valentin (Volya) Berlinsky's face.

© Vertavo Quartet
© Vertavo Quartet

With that distant memory lodged in my mind, I found the best way to understand the Vertavo Quartet's sheer joy in playing Haydn at the Wigmore Hall was to watch the sudden smiles, the happiness in the darting eyes of the quartet's viola player, Berit Cardas. They seemed to sum up the lightness, the exuberance of the quartet as they tripped with grace and astonishing technical assurance through four Haydn quartets last night, mostly in major keys.  

Those lively and supportive glances also served as a reminder that such freedom, the mutual trust needed to perform with this level of accomplishment, is something hard-won over the very long term. Cardas has been a true lynchpin of this quartet, having moved from alternating between first and second violin to the viola when a colleague left the group. This quartet has existed for over thirty years, and one can only imagine the countless hours of teamwork that have gone in to deliver this level of unanimity common understanding and, of course, that deeply under-respected thing, excellence. 

The slower movements were wonderful. Early on in the programme, the Adagio ma non troppo of the Quartet in B flat Op.71 no.1 had astonishing balance. Gentle graceful shaping and forethought informed every phrase. The quartet's impeccable tuning was achieved with virtually no vibrato. The minuet that followed also had ineffable charm and grace. The fast movements, and the final Presto of that quartet was typical, was taken at a relatively fast speed. The headlong rush is impressive, but some of Haydn's cheeky little dialogues and asides, which might be audible in a rehearsal room, were lost in the larger space of Wigmore Hall. 

Haydn's last, incomplete quartet Op.103 was played impeccably. One can only admire the way the Vertavos moved the listener effortlessly through the episodes of its first movement, each a major third lower than the last. It is a very unusual sequence: B flat – G flat – D – and back to B flat. Each time the Vertavos neatly departed the old key, wrapped it up with a little caesura. The listener could instantly forget where they had just been, settle comfortingly into the new key as if it was the most natural place to be. It was almost too tidy, too planned. I kept thinking that I wanted Haydn's chromaticism, unpredictability and contrast to jar, to ache just a little bit more.

It feels like an unnecessary quibble. Because what stays in the mind is Haydn's joy. And that smile. 

 

The first version of this review contained a different version of the circumstances of Berit Cardas' move from violin to viola. With apologies for the error, and thanks to the quartet's manager for putting it right.

****1