Most string quartets seldom step outside the established canon of the classical Viennese repertoire (Haydn to Schubert), some Schumann, Brahms and Dvorak, some 20th century French repertoire, Bartok and Shostakovich. Not so the Quatuor Mosaïques.

Founded in 1987 by four members of the Concentus Musicus Wien and performing on period instruments, Quatuor Mosaïques has always been keen to explore neglected repertoire of the 18th and 19th centuries (such as Arriaga and Jadin to name a few). On this occasion, they presented us with Ferdinand David’s string quartet Op.32. Last year they performed this work in Vienna for the first time in nearly hundred years. Ferdinand David (1810-73) is primarily known as the violinist for whom Mendelssohn wrote his famous violin concerto, and he also led the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

David himself composed several violin concertos and string quartets as well as an opera. Judging from this A minor String Quartet though, his part writing is not as fluent or tight as his contemporaries such as Mendelssohn or Schumann. Still, there were some attractive melody writing for both the first violin and the cello, and some memorable musical ideas. For example, the beautiful Adagio second movement took the form of a set of elegant variations on a chorale-like chromatic theme and the scherzo displayed some rhythmic playfulness. In the finale, there was a nod to Mendelssohn with the use of the tarantella rhythm (familiar from his Italian Symphony) and a climax that resembled the violin concerto.

Earlier, the concert opened brilliantly with an exciting performance of Haydn’s string quartet op. 76-5. The Quatuor Mosaïques is renowned for their Haydn interpretations and what distinguishes their performance is the combination of warm and sonorous tone of gut strings and elegantly shaped and articulated phrasing. This mature masterpiece, composed after Haydn’s return from London, is full of surprises and formal experiments, and the quartet took us on an exciting journey, including an introspective Largo movement which anticipates Beethoven’s late quartets.

Brahms took nearly eight years to complete his first string quartet to his satisfaction. The outer movements in particular are grand and symphonically conceived, whereas the inner movements are much more intimate and delicate. The playing of the Quatuor Mosaïques was full of symphonic colour yet it never sounded heavy. Their approach is unconfrontational, always maintaining clarity of texture and never exerting too much pressure on the gut strings (The only problem about the use of gut strings is that it does get out of tune easily, and it seemed the viola player was suffering from intonation due to this). The third movement sounded especially fresh and vibrant in their hands. All in all, I felt that their interpretation brought out the “Viennese” Brahms rather than the German Brahms.