Modigliani Quartet

By Scott MacClelland

I WAS TAKEN BY SURPRISE at the Modigliani Quartet’s performance Sunday afternoon in Carmel. Their performance of Mozart’s Quartet in C, K 465, known as the “Dissonant,” surpassed even my most hopeful expectations. But their reading of Brahms’ Quartet in A Minor threw me a curve, a seeming perversion of the composer’s intension.   

The Brahms Quartet in A Minor is a lyrical, songful piece which, in the hands of the Modigliani, emphasized a turbulence that altered its character, especially in the first and last allegro movements. Their approach must have been by design but it distorted a facet of the composer’s artistic personality. Or did it? After Beethoven and Schubert, and a few other examples from the early 19th century, the string quartet as a form appeared to run out of gas. Brahms stepped up to revive it, in fits and starts. This work falls short of his most popular chamber music, thanks largely to its densely contrapuntal and canonic textures and often somber moods. Modigliani made it sound far more avant-garde, as if Brahms had 20th century foresight. (Indeed, Arnold Schoenberg, among others, thought of this piece that way.) The ‘lyrical, songful’ qualities of the outer movements were given sharply articulated points and angles, which certainly underscored the harmonic scheme and key relationships. The slow movement’s animated central section was actually more like a gentle stirring of wind. The Quasi minuet’s trio section only slightly more so. The finale is a hybrid sonata-rondo that gave the first violinist, Amaury Coeytaux, plenty of virtuoso calisthenics.

The opening Mozart by contrast was pure seduction, from the dissonantly throbbing—think 20th century—opening to the unfolding of its bejeweled treasury. The work is the last of six quartets Mozart dedicated to Haydn and inspired most specifically by Haydn’s Op. 33 set of string quartets. It was plain from the outset how attuned the players were to one another and to the set of four 18th century violins and cello and 17th century viola. Mozart spiced the music with whole tones and chromatics that subtly reminds the listener of the weird beginning moments, which Modigliani broadened out before settling into its cheerful allegro first theme. Mozart extended the recap of the opening theme group as the movement drew to a close. Then came the Andante cantabile, all sighs and irresistible sweet nothings, with doubtful sideways glances and occasional points of punctuation. François Kieffer’s cello gave the movement its foundational support. The Menuetto swaggers smartly and contains a tiny syncopated bit that Haydn seized on in the corresponding movement in his Symphony No. 104, and to even wilder effect in the big first movement of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony. The trio section turns the color dark and the mood aggressive. The final Allegro molto, like the first, uses sonata form to sizzling, surprising effect.

Mozart, here and elsewhere, created music that feels inevitable and effortless—notwithstanding the composer’s protest that he worked as hard at his art as anyone else. The second piece on display, Mendelssohn’s short Capriccio in E Minor, didn’t enjoy that spontaneous gush of the Mozart. Though equally well-played by Modigliani, the Adagio section was no caprice. The Fugue, however, proved to be a runaway steeplechase.

The four Frenchmen play with tremendous authority, and seem to enjoy being old-school, reading from printed parts not the now-often-seen digital tablets.