The Wigmore Hall on July 13th was The Jupiter Quartet’s only UK appearance on their America-based Summer tour. They used the opportunity to showcase the innovations which occurred within the String Quartet repertoire through the twentieth century , ending with a homage to the form’s Classical peak. To start, three succinct and distinct works by contemporaries Webern and Bartok, and their natural successor Kurtág. To finish, a fine interpretation of Beethoven’s String Quartet in B flat, Op 130 given a twist by the addition of his Gross Fugue Op 133, which is conventionally performed separately.

© Merri Cyr
© Merri Cyr

Webern’s Langsamer Satz is one of his very earliest works, from 1905. Short in length and motivic in character, its three subjects are passed gracefully between instruments whilst gradually increasing in urgency towards a clenched peak. Motifs such as the shared series of rapidly descending triplets in the first section of the work exemplified Jupiter’s synchronicity; their shaping of themes and eventual diminution were seamless. The Quartet was comfortable inside the Romantic perimeters of this work, Webern’s last fling with Romanticism before entering the realms of atonality and serialism. Jupiter revelled in the breadth of technical and melodic exploration inside its well-balanced capsule form, a welcome relaxant before Bartok’s extraordinarily complex Third Quartet.

Bartok was blessed with the ability to convey agony, bliss and nationalistic Hungarian identity with exceptional force. The Third Quartet contains all three of these preoccupations, as he turns the vigorous subject of the Prima Parte into a broad scherzo in the Seconda Parte, with sul ponte bowing adding an alluring smokiness. A sense of tonal centre is maintained throughout, whilst incessant counterpoint creates urgency and accumulates complexity towards the final, recapitulative fourth movement. Typically of Bartok, challenging technical instruction abounds, and Jupiter rose to this challenge. The Seconda Parte and its progression into a rapid moto perpetuo features exciting articulation such as brief, frantic tappings of the bow on the wood and fast-paced off-the-string playing in all instruments. Played with technical confidence, this added a touch of percussiveness, vivid musical colour and a particularly Bartokian restlessness to the work’s character; all utterly engaging down to the scurrying final movement.

Perhaps it is the unbroken structure of Bartok’s Third Quartet that makes it an exhausting listen; the varied and contemplative Hommage à András Mihály restored calm. By its composition in 1977, Kurtág had discovered the work of Webern (who died the year before he commenced his own studies in Budapest). His recovery from depression seems to have inspired a palpable sense of reflection, homage and growth in his ‘Twelve Microludes’, one for each note of the chromatic scale. As a prelude is a self-contained musical idea, or a predecessor to something else, these microludes do the same in compact form. Each focuses intensely around its tonal centre, uses the wide scope for harmonic expansion and contraction with the String Quartet to create distinct musical shapes, and reaches completion before moving on to a new character. The completeness of the series of twelve came across strongly as the final ‘Microlude’ returned to the opening chorale style after forays into harmonics, dynamic extremes and a homage to fellow Hungarian András Mihály.

After these unique works, Beethoven’s exemplary String Quartet seemed almost predictable apart for one structural oddity, the Grosse Fuge. The Jupiter Quartet were clearly on familiar territory with the work (their 2011 schedule is extremely Beethoven-heavy), but oddly enough this was the piece in which their judgement sometimes faltered. The opening Adagio of this divertimento-style Quartet began to drag towards the end, the main achievement being a an excellent question-answer relationship between the players. There was a great chemistry between their instruments and their timing was largely impeccable. Impeccable, that is, until an inexplicable sudden loss of rhythm and phrasing in the third Alla danza tedesca movement, the Allegro assai faltering as even the intonation was momentarily thrown off balance. Fortunately, Jupiter recovered quickly and steered authoritatively through the brief but intense Cavatina before an exhilarating Finale, taken at a lively Allegro.

Although the Grosse Fugue re-trod the tonal territory of the String Quartet, only with renewed energy, it felt like a completely different piece of music. This was unsurprising considering that it rarely accompanies the Op 130 B flat Quartet, but a consequence of this odd pairing was that the second half was strangely weighted towards the second half in terms of quality and energy. The gorgeous exposition of the two main themes in the ‘Overtura’ which introduce the Grosse Fugue’s condensation of the sonata and variation forms, were an early highlight. Thereafter, Jupiter returned to the high standard they exhibited in the first half, finishing off the busy fugal structure with an exuberant forte flourish.

It was a very neat history of String Quartet repertoire, but considering their aptitude for European post-war twentieth-century repertoire, Jupiter’s approach is remarkably conservative. It would be refreshing to hear this Quartet, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year, explore the continuing development of string quartets music towards the present-day.

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