Founded in 1970 at the instigation of Princess Grace of Monaco, the Festival Printemps des Arts de Monte-Carlo has been under the artistic direction of Marc Monnet since 2001. Also a composer, Monnet aims to challenge audiences and place the expected alongside the unexpected. So in a series of Beethoven's String Quartets, we find works by contemporary composers, as well as works by the late German-Argentine composer, Mauricio Kagel (1931-2008). Kagel is a featured composer at this year's festival, and his striking image adorns the festival's publicity.

Signum Quartet © JM Emportes
Signum Quartet
© JM Emportes

Tonight, it was South African composer Matthijs van Dijk's turn to present a work to accompany two giants of the string quartet repertoire, Beethoven's Op.132 and Op.130, with the mammoth Grosse Fuge, Op.133. A daunting proposition, but van Dijk's (rage) rage against the proved a striking and worthy opener. Inspired by Dylan Thomas' Do not go gentle into that good night, it explores the contrast between an internalised, meditative response to the inevitability of death, with an almost violent rage. Tortured harmonics are pitted against thwacks of bow against string, with foot stamps and even the performers humming. It takes time before rhythmic interest gathers pace, but a build to a tormented climax is followed by a section of overlapping lines with a tintinnabulous whiff of Pärt, leading to the emergence of the players ethereal humming almost out of nowhere. A powerful workout for the intensely committed players, cellist Thomas Schmitz's bow was almost shredded by the end. This was no light filler, and admirably prefigured elements of the profundity and despair in the Beethoven works to come.

And so to Beethoven. George Bernard Shaw's description of the late quartets as “beautiful, simple, straightforward, unpretentious, perfectly intelligible” may be partially true, but it seems a stretch to consider these complex and boundary-challenging epics as simple and straightforward. The A minor Op.132's five movements contain a plethora of tempi jumps, dense harmonic development, and stretching of form, particularly in the lengthy opening movement. The Signum Quartet's approach was bravely open, beginning with a bare, almost fragile pianissimo set of entries. Their second movement Minuet and Trio was graceful, although the acoustic blurred some precision. But their central movement, the Heiliger Dankgesang was profoundly moving. That bare sound from the opening was back, emphasising the fragility of this heartfelt, hymn-like music, written after Beethoven was recovering from a serious illness that interrupted his composition of the piece. There is a lift in the central section, which Beethoven marked Neue Kraft fühlend (feeling new strength), but the intensity that the Signum Quartet gave to the suspensions that layer up brought the movement to a heart-stopping conclusion – so much so that Beethoven's start-stop heroics that open the fourth movement had an almost violent abruptness. The finale's mood to a certain extent wipes away the depths of earlier emotion, but despite lyrical and passionate playing from the Signum, we were left appropriately unsettled and unconvinced by Beethoven's bravado.

Then finally, Beethoven's String Quartet in B flat major, Op.130, with its original finale, the Grosse Fuge. The quartet's six movements can be challenging for quartets to maintain momentum – and stamina – throughout. The Signum sensibly took a measured approach to the opening movement, with tight ensemble and commitment to the sudden energetic bursts in its development section. It took a few moments for the sprightly Presto to settle, but once on track, the quartet dashed this off with spirit and humour, giving the rustic third movement equal poise and lightness of touch. They took great delight in the Alla danza tedesca, giving the offbeat rhythmic accents more of a push or swell than a harsh attack, adding to the seasick feeling, and intensifying Beethoven's unsettling rhythmic uncertainty. Their Cavatina was tender and touching, although perhaps after the intensity and profundity of their Op.132 Adagio, it didn't pack quite the same punch. However, their Grosse Fuge was dramatic from the off, with all four players going for the fugue hell-for-leather in places, definitely some of van Dijk's rage here. The quirky interlude melody is always a tricky one to make sense of in this highly intense movement. Some players play it up and emphasise the contrast and humour; here, the Signum almost swept it aside with disdain, the tutti fugue theme statements emphatically slapping down any sense of levity. This was an impressively commanding Grosse Fuge, ending a tour de force of two mammoth quartets. Thankfully, they were not too spent to give us a tender arrangement by violist Xandi van Dijk of Schubert's Du bist die Ruh, D776, bringing restorative calm to an evening so full of energy and rage.


Nick's press trip to Monte-Carlo was funded by Printemps des Arts

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