A string quartet is more than the sum of its component parts. To achieve success, an ensemble will usually have played together for years, and in the course of this have developed an intimate rapport and almost instinctual partnership. The importance of this mutual understanding is brought out in Vikram Seth’s novel An Equal Music, and is a feature of the most celebrated quartets (Quartetto Italiano, the Alban Berg, Takács and Tokyo Quartets etc.). When a new player has to be drafted in, it usually requires a period of months, even years for the ensemble to bed down fully.

The Modigliani Quartet's usual line-up © Sylvie Lancrenon
The Modigliani Quartet's usual line-up
© Sylvie Lancrenon

Monday night’s fine concert by the Modigliani Quartet was therefore a success against the odds. The Modigliani Quartet is still a relatively young ensemble, having been in existence for just a dozen years, but it has quickly achieved widespread recognition. Shortly before embarking on their current tour of Australia, the cellist was injured and replaced at short notice by Christophe Morin, himself sporting a black medical glove on his left hand. The change in line-up led to some enforced alterations to the program. This prudence had its rewards: Morin fitted into the group almost seamlessly, with little indication that he wasn’t a regular member.

Appropriately, the first notes heard were from the cello, a rich repeated B flat that starts Haydn’s Op.50 no. 1. This composer has been central to the group’s discography, and they showed an affinity for the different aspects of his style. The first movement had both limpidity and energy, while the variations in the second movement were each given an individual character. In the third movement the players had particular fun with the clockwork rhythms of the trio, with the places where the melody bobs between the two violins sensationally precise. The finale was dashed off with sparkling verve, checked only by a brief slower passage in the middle. Whether one was looking for fun or shapely phrasing, this performance delivered.

Shostakovich’s First, as first violinist Philippe Bernhard explained, is rather less acerbic than the rest of his quartet output. The first theme, for instance, is mostly consonant, with just a few momentary smudges confirming its twentieth-century origins. The players caught the strange mixture of soul and whimsicality in the second theme well (ostinato repeated notes in the viola, cello swoops and singing first violin). The viola opening of the second movement was particularly fine, and the perpetual-motion start to the third was appropriately edgy. The humorous ending of the third movement was followed by a muscular rendition of the finale.

After the break, the group tackled Schubert’s Quartetsatz, and deftly moved from the nervous opening (foreshadowing the texture at the outset of the “Unfinished” Symphony) to the lyrical second idea which follows shortly afterwards. The later move to G major was dramatic, and overall the players seemed comfortable with the not-inconsiderable technical demands and the emotional range required.

Throughout Dvořák’s Twelfth Quartet, the commitment of the Modigliani Quartet was almost palpable: the pentatonic freshness of the main material in the first and last movements was particularly delicious. In the second, the lower three instruments created an attractive rocking bed of sound, over which the first violin sang its sad modal song. The players worked up to a satisfying climax, and the final statement of the melody by the cello sounded like a melancholy reflection on the past before the bleak ending. The third movement swapped between perky main material and more angsty minor trio sections. In the finale we had both plenty of drive and a heartfelt chorale (which just escaped being maudlin).

For an encore the players gave us the second movement of Haydn’s String Quartet in F Op.3 no. 5, although modern scholars now believe this set published under Haydn’s name was actually written by Roman Hofstetter. This complicated backstory wasn’t mentioned by Bernhard, who simply introduced it as a ‘lullaby’ to calm the audience after the excitement of the Dvořák. The brisk tempo seemed at odds with what one normally associates with this genre, and in fact, the movement is more usually described as a Serenade. This certainly fits better with the texture: the charming first-violin melody supported by pizzicato lower parts recalls an amorous evening song accompanied by guitar, an impression furthered by the fact that the second violin and viola were plucked in banjo position. In any case, the mismatch between the stated designation and what was heard didn’t seem to worry the audience, who responded warmly to the exquisite rendition.