As seen at their second concert in the Queen Elizabeth Hall during the International Chamber Music Season 2006-07, the Alban Berg Quartet has a very strong fan base in London and deservedly so.
All four members of this quartet are particularly disciplined in terms of physical manifestation: instead of indulging in fashionable (and easily marketable) extravert body language, they focus on sounds. Even eye-contact between the players is kept to the very minimum. Though viola player Isabel Charisius - who replaced the late Thomas Kakuska after his untimely death in 2005 - is a relative newcomer to the group, their musical homogeneity is remarkable.
In Haydn's Quartet in C, Op.33 No.3 ('The Bird'), we could have been forgiven for thinking that we were listening to birds singing and talking to each other, rather than to a string quartet. The players' sweet tone, relaxed sound and intimacy even in louder passages reminded me that their instruments were made from trees which must have 'heard' such bird songs many times. Quartet leader GŁnter Pichler's sensitive phrasing in the Adagio (third movement) - which consists of a solo for the first violin with accompaniment by the other three instruments - resembled a beautiful song without words. In the final movement, a robust Rondo, the quartet demonstrated that they can play roughly when required to do so by the composer.
Schoenberg's Quartet No.3, Op.30, is not easy listening. At the conclusion of this piece, a friend of mine - a committed music lover - declared his immediate need for a strong whisky. Yet it is unlikely that one could hear a better performance of this composition than we heard on this occasion. Though the first violin 'sang' beautifully in many passages, it is unlikely that listeners went away singing any of Schoenberg's tunes. But there was plenty to admire and enjoy in the performance. The masterly build up from piano to forte through a twenty-bar phrase in the first movement was a master class for lesser players and listeners alike. In the third movement (Intermezzo) the first violin does not play at all in the first eighteen bars: quartet leader Pichler sat back, avoided the temptation to direct and left musical matters in the very capable hands of his three colleagues. The dialogue between the violins and lower strings towards the end of the movement again demonstrated equality among these players.
I was not sure why some of the notes marked sf in the opening movement of Beethoven's Quartet No. 16 in F, Op. 135, were played quite so roughly but they were consistent and therefore showed a certain aspect of Beethoven. I was also surprised by some of the dynamics which differed from those marked in my Boosey & Hawkes score. Nevertheless, the performance had integrity and was hugely appreciated by the full capacity audience. We were treated to a highly appropriate and most enjoyable encore with the final movement of Haydn's String Quartet Op. 74 ('The Rider').
Chamber music of such quality is rare. Judging by the atmosphere in the audience, we will all treasure the memory of this excellent concert.
By Agnes Kory