Audiences throughout Australia bought tickets well in advance for the Modigliani Quartet – in Melbourne coinciding with the Melbourne International Festival and timely for the four Frenchmen. But the Quartet had a major setback before the Australian tour when its cellist Francois Kieffer had an accident and was not able to join them. A worthy substitute was found in cellist Christophe Morin (although it was slightly alarming, although surely unrelated, that he sported a black glove on his fingering hand throughout his performance).
The other three performers were regular members of the Modigliani Quartet: violinists Philippe Bernhard and Loïc Rio and viola Laurent Marfaing. It was disappointing that the program we heard had had to be changed, with the substitution of another Haydn quartet not such a loss as the advertised quartet by Nigel Westlake. But there was nothing to complain of in the final program:
HAYDN String Quartet no 36 in B flat major, op 50 no 1
BEETHOVEN String Quartet no 11 in F minor, op 95 ‘Serioso’
SCHUBERT String Quartet no 10 in E flat major, op 125
SHOSTAKOVICH String Quartet no 1 in C major, op 49
Despite these changes the performance of the Modigliani Quartet left nothing to be desired. The importance of the cello was immediately evident in the Haydn String Quartet both with its repeat notes and its blending with the other instruments. This must have been quite a feat given a reduced rehearsal time, but it reassured the audience that there would be no compromise on the quality of the performance. The resonance of the first violin in particular was another striking aspect of this opening movement.
The Adagio was not too slow but still a courtly dance with lovely attention to the dynamics especially in repeated phrases. The three lower strings created a harmonic base for the violin “solo”. There was a fluid and smooth move to the minor key with the violin maintaining this role until it was taken over by the cello. Both performances were worthy of the attention given to them by the music.
The third movement, Menuetto, sounded a very early composition in it simplicity – but was not! Finally the fourth movement was Vivace from the outset. All played apace and even at speed the dynamics were observed, with the reprise showing that Haydn had a sense of fun.
The Beethoven (swapped in the program with the Schubert at the last minute) proved a huge contrast to the Haydn, being a full-blown romantic work from the outset with an enthusiastic attack by all. It was more than “moderately quite fast”, surely! Again, one wondered at the blending of all four instruments and the timing, a great achievement given their short time together. The attack was precise with a suggestion of syncopation. Next came a complex development of several ideas but the quartet kept a single purpose in realising Beethoven’s vision. Shifts in tempo, mood and even an apparent change of ending were all carried smoothly through by the quartet. This unity of purpose carried through the complexity of the next movement, Allegro/scherzo and on to a brilliant coda to end the work, which showed individual talent as well as the integration of the four.
After interval an almost Mozartian Allegro moderato began the Schubert quartet. It was characterised by lovely harmony, careful phrasing and a lilting style. The first violin again had a solo role. The tempo and feeling of the work was more of a challenge than it appeared and the tempo was out briefly at one point in the first movement. But the scherzo that followed was a good test of synchronicity which was well met, as was the change of mood and the reprise of the first subject.
The Adagio was simply lovely both recalling Mozart and also vintage Schubert. The cello grounded the first violin solo with series of repeated notes while the middle parts filled in the harmony through to a beautiful soft passage.
The next movement, Allegro, had an emphatic beginning, the first violin tackling brilliant scales while the others supported and imitated. The cello’s pizzicato was light and a contribution to the Schubertian sound. Individual parts were as important as all were in harmony. The first violin led into a building section before the four drew together to close the movement in the original tempo – and with a flourish!
Finally it was the substituted work, the Shostakovich String Quartet no 1 in C major, op 49. After a false start it settled to a moderato tempo and then a strong theme with a touch of atonality. There were counter themes in which the instruments exchanged importance, although the first violin continued to truly be the leader on the night. The tempo continued to be a challenge throughout, and the composer’s demands led to some virtuosic playing, the finale earning enthusiastic applause.
After the bravura performances of the night it was a pity that the Quartet chose Leroy Anderson’s composition “Plink, Plank, Plunk!” for an encore. Yes, it’s amusing and clever and certainly showed the Quartet’s mastery of pizzicato, but against the giants of the repertoire we had heard, it lacked substance.
Fortunately, that is not something that could be said of the Modigliani Quartet itself.
The picture is of guest cellist Christophe Morin.