The Alban Berg Quartet's decision to disband later this year is going to leave the musical world an impoverished place.
That this concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall fell on Valentine's Day was no doubt coincidental but it highlighted the strange romance surrounding this great ensemble.
The quartet's biography still talks candidly of the 'painful loss' in 2005 of Thomas Kakuska, their violist since 1981, and although Isabel Charisius, one of his pupils whom he nominated as successor, is an outstanding musician and technically the quartet is still as miraculously robust as ever, the tragedy of Kakuska's death is compounded by the sadness that the unique chemistry of the quartet seems to have been upset beyond repair.
This programme was a showcase of the quartet's core repertoire: the introduction to Haydn's Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross was followed, in the first half, by Berg's Lyric Suite. Schubert's great final Quartet in G made up the second half. Although on paper the programme might have looked rather austere, the ensemble had carefully chosen works which, in their different ways, seek to push the boundaries of the string quartet aesthetic. Haydn's work, most obviously, was conceived for full orchestra. The highly subjective nature of Berg's Lyric Suite, charting his love affair with Hanna Fuchs-Robettin in what Adorno called 'a latent opera', pushes the expressive – and purely compositional – possibilities of the quartet to its limit. Schubert's last quartet, written two years before the Quintet, similarly tries to burst out of the quartet medium, both in terms of length and its quasi-orchestral conception. That this repertoire is suited to this Viennese quartet is down to much more than simple geography: the famously big, rich sound of the Alban Bergs brought the scope and ambition of the works to the fore in a way that few other ensembles would be able to achieve.
Setting the pattern for the concert, there was precision in the contrast between the austere opening chords and the tender, quieter episodes in the Haydn work. First violinist Günther Pichler's brief snippets of solo work were particularly affecting. It was Berg's Lyric Suite, though, that was the focus of the first half and it received a performance here of stunning virtuosity and total commitment. Whether in the fortissimo intensity of the Presto delirando or the delicate, gossamer textures of the Allegro misterioso, the breadth of colour and dynamic range produced was exceptional. Pichler was once again outstanding in his extended solo in the Adagio appassionato but the solo work from the other members of the group was every bit as fine. If at times the interpretation lacked a little tenderness in the more introspective moments, this was still exemplary chamber music playing.
Their Schubert was imperious and authoritative but also beautifully lyrical; the performances of the astonishing first two movements caught the quartet on ideal form. The big statements, performed again with unrivalled intensity of tone, were contrasted with the quieter passages, which were played with a considered detachment that sometimes bordered on objectivity. But the players always had a surge of extra lyricism to call upon, or a melting rubato at the transitions, to prevent the performance from ever sounding detached. The almost Brucknerian tension in the first movement was controlled expertly and would, when required, be unleashed with intense power. Yet cellist Valentin Erben's solo at the opening of the Andante un poco mosso was so hushed, that it nearly risked being drowned out by his colleagues.
The Scherzo provided some relief from the intensity but still the repeated quaver rhythm was treated as an obsessive, nervous tick on Schubert's part. The Trio, though, did provide respite. It was performed with lightness and delicacy, and the rapport between Pichler and second violinist Gerhard Schulz in the lilting duet halfway through was joyfully apparent. After such authoritative readings of the first three movements, the Alban Bergs, like many musicians and commentators before them, didn't seem quite as sure in their interpretation of the Finale. Although there was the occasional smile darting around between the players, little of that lightness was communicated through the music itself. Schubert lets his hair down, allowing the insistent, galloping triplets to dissolve into something more humorous and melodic, even earthy. The writing, in the first violin part in particular, surely calls for a lighter touch than Pichler brought to it here. I think this was partly down to an interpretative decision and partly down to tiredness; his soveign technique let him down a little here, too. However, if the Finale failed to convince, this did little to erase the impression made by the rest of the performance.
Having started with Haydn, the audience was treated as an encore to an intensely beautiful performance of the Adagio from that composer's 'Sunrise' Quartet. The Alban Berg Quartet returns to the South Bank Centre later in the year for a final handful of concerts. Before London realises that these will really be their last, I suggest you get those tickets booked.
By Hugo Shirley