Wednesday 13th April 2011

Schubert – Quartettsatz in C minor, D703

Shostakovich – Quartet No.2 in A, Op.68

Beethoven – Quartet in C, Op.59/3 (Rasumovsky)

The Michelangelo Quartet was formed in 2002 by Mihaela MARTIN & Stephan PICARD (violins), Nobuko IMAI (viola) & Frans HELMERSON (cello). Distinguished as soloists, chamber musicians and teachers, they share an irresistible desire to play the greatest repertoire of all.
Schubert’s Quartet Movement is a perfect beginning. Shostakovich was a mature 38 when he wrote his second quartet, just after his 8th symphony. It is the first to make use of instrumental recitative, a technique he later used extensively. The well-known Beethoven quartet ends the concert with its brilliant fugal finale.


‘One of the Best Concerts Ever’ at the Ilkley Concert Club

So many leaving the Ilkley Concert Club event were saying what a wonderful occasion it had been and I feared that reviewing it I’d be lost for superlatives; on the face of it not an easy programme, with a lengthy and rarely played quartet by Shostakovich at its heart.

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The players showed their huge dynamic range at the start of Schubert’s Quartettsatz; ensemble and intonation were superb and there was unashamed use of expressive rubato, a thoroughly romantic interpretation.

Then came Shostakovich’s Second Quartet. At the previous concert the players had spoken to us about the music they played and I’d hoped this might be the case for this piece. But there was no need so well did their performance put across its shifting moods. The virtuosic demands of the often ferocious first movement were fully met. First violinist Mihaela Martin gave the slow movement’s protracted recitative-like solos great depth of feeling in music that in less impassioned hands could seem over-extended. The troubled subtext of the strange muted quick waltz that followed was fascinatingly explored. The finale, variations beginning almost laconically but growing towards a cathartic climax is a real challenge for the players. Cellist Frans Helmerson showed powerful attack and second violin Stephan Picard’s wistful solo towards the end was equally telling. The audience’s enthusiastic response to this disturbingly communicative performance said it all, a truly vivid and memorable experience and in the hands of these players not a moment too long.

Beethoven’s Third Rasumovsky Quartet  brought the concert to a richly satisfying conclusion from its harmonically ambiguous opening to the concluding fugal high jinks. The first movement’s allegro was joyously played projecting Beethoven’s sunny C major with great élan. The slow movement, rich cello pizzicati supporting a haunting melody, cast its hypnotic folk-like spell. The surprisingly formal minuet and trio make a marvellous foil for the finale, violist Nobuko Imai kick-starting the proceedings with energy and gutsy humour. An evening to remember.


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Recommended Recordings



The Jerusalem Quartet give an excellent, highly praised, performance on a well recorded Harmonia Mundi CD-HMC 901990 (full price). The coupling is ‘Schubert’s “Death & the Maiden” Quartet. My personal favourite is on Philips 446 163-2 (2 CD set at budget price). The Quartetto Italiano give warm, yet dramatic, performances of Schubert’s last 4 quartets, and the analogue sound has been well transferred to CD.

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Should you want a very good performance in superb modem sound, the Mandelring Quartet are an excellent choice on Audite 92526 (full price). The SACD disc will play on all CD players, and the couplings are Shostakovich’s String Quartets Nos. 1 & 4. A more vital, earthy, performance is given by the Borodin String Quartet on Virgin 5616302 (2 CDs at budget price). The recording, from 1990, is rather closer than the Manderling’s, but suits the dramatic reading. The couplings are Shostakovich’s Quartets Nos. 3, 7, 8 & 12.


The Takacs Quartet give a technically impeccable, perceptive, reading on Decca 470 847-2 (2 CDs). The couplings are the other Op.59 and the Op.74 Quartets, and the recording quality is superb. The discs are widely available at budget price, although some dealers still have them at full price. An excellent alternative is by the Artemis Quartet, who give fresh, dramatic performances of Quartets Nos.2, 9,14 & 15 on Virgin 6071020 (2 CDs at budget price).

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