Although they are rightly renowned for their recordings of Haydn, that master of musical humour, the Quatuor Mosaïques chose an unapologetically cerebral and serious programme for their appearance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Starting with three 'Contrapuncti' from Bach's Art of Fugue, they moved on to Mendelssohn's astonishing Quartet Op. 80 and finished with Beethoven's Op. 130 Quartet, with its original finale, the even more astonishing Grosse Fuge (published as Op. 133).
This was the first time I'd seen this quartet live so am not familiar with their usual stage manner, but here the seriousness of the programme informed their demeanour. In fact, it was remarkable how little they communicated with one another; there was little in the way of eye contact and none of the little, knowing smiles that dart between players of other quartets. This seriousness was understandable in the Bach, perhaps, but even here their decision to eschew almost any expressiveness, playing with almost no vibrato, made for something intellectually bracing but emotionally rather cold.
Mendelssohn's Quartet Op. 80 took us into far more emotional territory. It is a work which the quartet's leader Erich Höbarth describes in the programme as 'a death cry in four movements'. The necessarily greater emotional range required the players, most notably Höbarth, who carries the greatest expressive burden, to push their instruments to the limit. These gut strings didn't react kindly to this sort of pressure and the sound often became pushed, harsh and tended to creep sharp. I suppose it's authentic but this did occasionally affect my ability to enjoy the concert.
The opening Allegro vivace assai was tautly controlled, however, and the menacing tremolandi were properly intense. The grander climaxes though remained strangely muted, again more the fault of the instruments than the players, I felt. The performance wasn't helped by a car alarm which began to sound from outside after the second movement Allegro assai (its extraordinary trio section particularly effective with the Mosaïques' almost vibrato-free playing). We had to wait for it to stop before the Adagio, but it was worth the wait. This was probably the highlight of the performance, Höbarth and his colleagues coaxing some utterly beguiling sounds from their instruments, which when not being put under too much pressure were able to sing naturally, vibrato employed judiciously. The finale was well played but the pressure on the first violin once again told, and its furious embellishments towards the end were forced, lacking the necessary pin-point accuracy.
Many of the same problems regarding the instruments were in evidence in the Beethoven and here it was noticeable how the different players reacted to the music. Höbarth sought to wring all he could from his fiddle while opposite him, 'cellist Christophe Coin played with serene detachment. He produced a beautiful tone but seemed uninvolved emotionally, although he sang out his lines beautifully in the first movement's development.
The Presto was deft and terse and the Mosaïques played the following Andante with a lovely lightness, reacting well to this, the most Haydnesque part of the work. These virtues were in evidence in the Alla danza tedesca movement although there were here more problems with intonation.
I had really high hopes for the Cavatina; the Adagio had been the high-point of the Mendelssohn and I fully expected the purity of the quartet's sound, indeed the peculiar vulnerability of the gut strings, to add to the heart-breaking pathos that is central to this movement. For some reason, though, it didn't quite hit the mark. In retrospect, the slight technical problems in the Alla danza tadesca seemed to mark the point where this performance lost its way.
This loss of direction and deterioration in technical finesse came to a head in the Grosse Fuge, the quartet's original finale, which Beethoven replaced at the request of friends who were, perhaps understandably, baffled by it. The practice of returning this movement to its rightful place seems to be gaining currency (the Takàcs Quartet do the same in their Gramophone Award winning set of the late quartets) but this performance did little to back up the case.
Höbarth expresses his belief in the programme that the work is autobiographical: 'you have to fight very hard to overcome obstacles and achieve a result.' Unfortunately these words could be applied not only to this movement but also to the Mosaïques' performance of it. To my ears, it was as though they fought very hard but just didn't quite overcome those obstacles or achieve the desired result.
There's no denying that this movement is a challenging listen, but here it provided an unwelcome extra challenge for the audience. The intonation problems that had crept in earlier were greatly emphasised as was Höbarth's unpleasantly forced tone. The players, heads buried in parts, weren't communicating with each other and the whole looked and sounded more effortful than it should; it's Beethoven's struggle that should be to the fore, not that of the performers.
By Hugo Shirley