Wigmore Mondays – Meta4: String Quartets by Fanny Mendelssohn & Bartók

Meta4 [Antti Tikkanen, Minna Pensola (violins), Atte Kilpeläinen (viola), Tomas Djupsjöbacka (cello)]

Wigmore Hall, Monday 17 February 2020 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

A pleasingly varied program from the Finnish string quartet Meta4, not least because it gave the Wigmore Hall and BBC Radio 3 audience a chance to hear Fanny Mendelssohn’s String Quartet, many undoubtedly experiencing the piece for the first time.

Often overshadowed by her brother Felix Mendelssohn’s musical output, Fanny was clearly a highly accomplished composer in a time when women were not encouraged to follow such musical disciplines. Only now is the quality of her music fully revealed, and this String Quartet stands side by side with the seven completed works of her brother. This one, as its composer freely admits, stands in the shadow of the late quartets of Beethoven.

The work’s dimensions are relatively unusual, pointed towards the third movement by two relatively short movements, slow and fast respectively, and it spends a lot of time in C minor as well as the ‘home key’ of E flat major, creating a tension between darker thoughts and sunnier climes. There is an enjoyable disregard for convention in the slow first movement (from 2:41 on the broadcast), with a broad and quite free approach that Meta4 have fully under their wing, the three standing players swaying and moving around the stage in response to the music.

While this could have been off putting there was no doubting their commitment and involvement, ensuring the first movement Adagio was thoughtful and profound. The following Allegretto (6:55) was quite wary initially, its C minor fluttering speaking of unease, but its central section scurried forward with an energetic fugue started by Atte Kilpeläinen’s busy viola (from 8:01).

The Romanze (10:57), beautifully played, was back in C minor but grew to be the centre of the performance, the soft heart of the movement becoming something really substantial and emotive in this performance. Meanwhile the spirited and full bodied finale (18:18) signed off in a lively fashion, powering forward through unison from viola and cello to a headlong sprint for the finish. Occasionally the intonation was a little off in the upper reaches of the violin line, but this was otherwise a very fine performance.

Bartók’s cycle of six string quartets rank among the very finest achievements in the form, and are rightly a cornerstone of any aspiring group’s repertoire. The First is the longest, in keeping with his earlier works as displaying deep Romantic-inspired passion but changing the musical language, finding a more individual voice as it strays further from tonality. The work came after several discarded attempts in the string quartet form, suggesting Bartók knew already that this would be one of his primary means of expression – and is regarded by many commentators on the composer as the work where his mature style arrives.

Much of the passion in this case was invested by the composer in a relationship with the young violinist Stefi Geyer, dedicatee of the Violin Concerto no.1, and the quartet is effectively a detailed account of their relationship and its ultimately tragic ending. That said, it is effectively a transition from the darkness of the breakup to the light and positivity of what might lie ahead.

Set in three substantial movements, this work often sounds as though there are more than four instruments playing, thanks to the use of multiple stopping (playing more than one note at a time on an instrument).

The first movement, described by Bartók as a ‘funeral dirge’, begins in shadow (26:39) but grows gradually in expressive intent. The quartet stay largely together in their outpouring, though a striking change of emphasis occurs at 31:04 when the cello takes on a drone-like figure. The music is briefly more assured, before dropping back to more threadbare, muted sounds.

The sorrowful first movement is effectively an introduction to the second (35:43) which pulls away from the slow tempo and starts noticeably to look up and outward. The textures become fuller, the dialogue between instruments is much more pronounced and the rhythmic definition starts to make itself known, as though Bartók wants to incorporate more of the traditional music around him. There are still pauses for reflection, but essentially the mood is one of grit and determination.

The third movement (46:06) is marked Allegro vivace – a real sign that the composer wants to get on with things. The cello takes up the mantle, its weighty dialogue with the viola inspiring full-bodied ensemble passages and more obviously folky asides.

The musical language flits between tonal statements, with bold tunes, and sections of music with a much less obvious centre. At 50:42 the music retreats, the quartet together but murmuring confidential asides to each other. The music builds and the statements become wilder and more sweeping. There are big chords from 55:49 where the sound could perhaps be bigger…but then Meta4 are saving themselves for a final push, finishing with a wonderfully robust and rustic chord.

As a side note, it was refreshing to see Meta4’s colourful attire for this concert, brightening up a dull February lunchtime! There need be no rules for dress in classical music like this, and it was good to see the quartet wearing what they felt comfortable with.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Fanny Mendelssohn String Quartet in E flat major (1834) (2:41)

Bartók String Quartet no.1 (1908-9) (26:39)

Further listening & viewing

The music from this concert can be heard in the playlist below, which includes Meta4’s own recording of the Bartók from 2014:

It has taken an awful long time for the music of Fanny Mendelssohn to break through to anywhere near the centre of classical repertoire – which is unforgivable really, given how good it is. The playlist below collects her Piano Trio and Piano Quartet, bisected by a Piano Sonata in C minor:

Bartók, meanwhile, is an ever-present as one of the 20th century’s musical innovators. The string quartets form the backbone of his career, and the cycle by the Takács Quartet is certainly one of the finest:

You can see details of Meta4’s Bartók release here:

Nash Ensemble – German Romantics I: Clara Schumann & Fanny Mendelssohn

Nash Ensemble: Stephanie Gonley (violin), Adrian Brendel (cello), Ian Brown (piano)

Clara Schumann 3 Romances for violin and piano Op.22 (1853)
Mendelssohn Variations Concertantes for cello and piano Op.17 (1829)
Fanny Mendelssohn Piano Trio in D minor Op.11 (1847)

Wigmore Hall, London
Saturday 12 January 2019 (5.30pm)

Review by Ben Hogwood

As part of the Nash Ensemble’s German Romantics season at the Wigmore Hall, it was gratifying indeed to find a concert paying tribute to Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann as composers in their own right rather than simply inspiration for their more frequently performed husbands.

Clara was the muse for Robert Schumann, and even after his death sacrificed her own career as a composer to ensure his music was best heard. Here we heard her last published work, the 3 Romances of 1853, written when Robert was still alive. Using a method of presentation her husband often employed in chamber music, she wrote these three attractive pieces for great violinist Joseph Joachim, with whom Clara gave the first performance in Germany. Stephanie Gonley and Ian Brown gave a thoughtful and rather beautiful account here, Gonley’s tone and phrasing ideally suited to the longer romantic melodies. The first piece was tender and expressive, the second thoughtful but with glimpses of sunshine, and the third a flowing account with an attractive, long-phrased melody.

There followed the Variations concertantes Op.19, the first of several works by Felix Mendelssohn for cello and piano. Written for his younger brother Paul, they are a virtuoso collection of far reaching interpretations of a theme, and were brilliantly played here by Adrian Brendel and Ian Brown, whose eager dialogue caught the energetic approach of the early Mendelssohn. The music moved from affirmative major key to tempestuous minor, but its return was a beautifully realised shift in mood.

We then heard Fanny Mendelssohn’s final published work, a Piano Trio to place alongside – if not even slightly ahead of – the two great works in the form by her brother. With the unison opening from violin and cello, presented above flowing piano figurations, she immediately ensures the audience are held in the drama of a piece that picks you up from the outset and doesn’t let you go.

Gonley, Brendel and Brown were ideal vehicles to present the piece, revelling in the exchanges of the first movement and the warmly romantic themes when the music became more affirmative. The middle two movements, effectively Songs Without Words in the Mendelssohn tradition, were beautifully presented with lyricism and charm, the third becoming distinctly chilly towards its close, leading to a cadenza from Brown to resume the drama in the final movement. The considerable struggles here were played out with thrilling virtuosity, distilling even the most complicated counterpoint before a glorious closing section that swept all before it.

It is to be hoped Clara Schumann’s 200th anniversary year – together with festival’s such as Venus Unwrapped at Kings Place – will raise the profile of women composers, which it has to be said could hardly have been lower in previous years. Concerts such as this help immensely, bringing forward the quality evident from both Clara and Fanny, with the pertinent reminder that neither Schumann nor Mendelssohn – nor indeed Brahms – could have achieved their musical goals without these creative forces.

For more information on the Nash Ensemble and their German Romantics series, visit their website

Further listening

You can listen to the music from both concerts of the latest German Romantics evening on the Spotify playlist below: