Wigmore Mondays – Novus String Quartet play Respighi & Berg

Novus String Quartet [Jaeyoung Kim, Young-Uk Kim (violins), Kyuhyun Kim (viola), Woongwhee Moon (Violoncello)]

Respighi Quartetto dorico (1924) (2:00 – 23:53 on the broadcast link below)

Berg Lyric Suite (1926) (27:15 – 59:23)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 25 March 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

Listening to the Quartetto dorico is like taking a big step back in time. The opening salvo of Ottorino Respighi’s quartet from the mid-1920s is certainly arresting for its volume and scoring – only four instruments but a massive sound! – and its musical language feels imported from another age.

The young Korean ensemble capture these qualities, establishing a dream state that is maintained throughout the performance. Respighi’s quartets are rarely performed, so the BBC and Wigmore Hall should be commended for bringing this one in from the cold, adding another dimension to the 20th century string quartet.

There is an otherworldly quality to the high violin writing later on in this single-movement span, lasting over 20 minutes – and the concentration of feeling provides an intense listening experience. From 4:30 on the broadcast link the music retreats to a quieter passage led by the viola, who essentially intones another chart to the soft, restful comments of the other three. A distinctive section starts at 9:27, with an irregular pulse but a strong rhythmic profile established by the plucked cello string, which gives a dance-like feel to the melody.

At 14:15 an important section starts, the Passacaglia – which has six beats in the bar. The music here is slow moving and deeply contemplative, the first violin taking the lead with a lot of the thoughts as the harmonies stay relatively still. Gradually the higher reaches of the instruments come into play, before a dramatic series of unison sweeps bring down the curtain.

If you’re able to read music I would highly recommend following the score with the performance, as it helps you appreciate Respighi’s unique approach to writing for string quartet. The link is here

From the sacred to the profane – and affter heady music to lift us away from earth, Alban Berg’s six-movement Lyric Suite brings us right back to earthly experiences. Though publically dedicated to the composer Alexander von Zemlinsky, as it quotes from his Lyric Symphony, it is in fact a not-so-private account of his doomed affair with Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, who he met on a visit to Prague in the 1920s.

The tempo markings of the six movements are descriptive and tell the story. The first provides a good introduction to Berg’s unique way of using serial (or ‘non tonal’) music in a way that is still highly melodic and richly layered with harmonies. Marked Allegretto gioviale (from 27:15 on the broadcast), it uses all four instruments for thick textures and intense dialogue, telling the story of the start of the couple’s affair.

The second movement, marked Andante amoroso (30:43), is lighter, with more of a spring in its step as Berg profiles Hanna and her two children, with distinct musical motifs for each. The third (Allegro misterioso – Trio estatico (37:24)) gives a musically vivid account of the affair’s consummation, with feather light textures, the instruments’ bows used near the bridge to create a feverish atmosphere.

Then, as the doomed nature of the relationship makes itself evident, the music turns sourer. The fourth movement is a slow one, Adagio appassionato (40:36) – and is passionate and pretty heavy, turning to depths of desolation at the end. The second violin (44:20) quotes from the Zemlinsky Lyric Symphony, but this is eerie and displaced, with the ending at 46:38 still more remote.

The last pair of movements is devastating for Berg. It starts with a febrile affair marked Presto delirando – Tenebroso (47:13) and has crisp, jagged phrases until, as the music slows, the thoughts become more remote and despair-laden, leading to the relatively sudden end at 51:45.

Finally the Largo desolato, which really is the end of everything () These are melodies that speak of despair and desolation, the end of the tether. A brief show of spirit and resolve is made at 56:56 but this is soon overcome by the viola and second violin, before some sweeping, downwards facing melodies on the cello. The music, fully spent, peters out at 59:23, as though Berg can no longer say any more.

Like the Respighi above, there is so much going on in Berg’s Lyric Suite that it may be an advantage to follow the music itself while listening. It can be found here

The Novus String Quartet gave incredibly impressive accounts of both works, taking the physical and mental demands in their stride and keeping a consistently high standard of ensemble. They have a refreshing approach to programming, and these elements should ensure they are a top level string quartet to keep an eye on.

Further reading and listening

The music in this concert can be heard here, with the Novus Quartet’s recently released recording of the Berg Lyric Suite an added draw:

https://open.spotify.com/user/arcana.fm/playlist/0Oqnt2uLE6E7L09TVxPU4Q?si=hD6X6m3RTTS9_jXU_bav_w

The Quartetto dorico is one of two string quartets completed by Respighi, but he also wrote the celebrated Il tramonto (Sunset) for soprano and string quartet. All three works fit very nicely onto one album, recorded by the Brodsky Quartet and the mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter:

Meanwhile Berg’s music for string quartet works extremely well in company with his colleague and fellow ‘serial’ composer Anton Webern. Berg’s rich romanticism and Webern’s incredibly concentrated approach complement each other on this Juilliard Quartet album:

One more playlist to end with – a selection of string quartets from the mid-1920s, illustrating the range of styles applied to the idiom at that time. There are some very different responses here from Janáček, Bartók, Martinů and Frank Bridge – very interesting to compare and contrast!

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