Given what I’ve said in previous reviews concerning historically informed performance (HIP), you won’t be surprised to find me eagerly eating up a recent release from Windermere String Quartet (Laura Jones -cello, who was so prominent recently in Essential Opera’s Alcina, Anthony Rapoport –viola, Rona Goldensher-violin and Elizabeth Loewen Andrews-violin). I find myself pondering the title “The Golden Age of the String Quartet”, a CD including Mozart’s K465, Haydn’s op 33 #2, and Beethoven’s op 18 #4.
I was never particularly blown away by these pieces when played with modern instruments. I didn’t actively dislike them, but I came to the “golden age” of string quartet with modest expectations.
But these pieces are completely different when played by modern instruments: with the edge smoothed out. A HIP approach to these quartets makes so much more sense.
If we’ve been listening to quartets on modern instruments, chances are the more recent works will sound better on the modern instruments, while the older pieces sound somewhat bare, missing some essential drama. I swear, long before I ever heard a HIP performance, I was already wondering about Beethoven’s early string quartets Op 18. I had the Amadeus quartets set on DG, a nice enough set of recordings, except that the way they played those quartets made them seem like immature Beethoven. After what people like Bruno Weil & Stewart Goodyear have shown me recently, that simply won’t do. One must read all compositions with integrity and never with condescension.
The Windermere recordings? From the first track (the Mozart K465 quartet), something is definitely different. There’s more mystery in the quiet introduction, due to the personality of each player. There’s more drama in the Allegro, a plaintive and pliant theme that pulls obstreperously at your heart strings like a very strong child. In this kind of performance the “child” is still innocent, but Windermere don’t infantilize, nor do they subdue the wildness of this child. There’s no calculated appeal to your heart. It’s a natural beauty that is at times counter-intuitive, precisely because we’ve had a particular notion of classical music rammed down our throats for much of the 20th century, that Mozart of Haydn should be safe and understated. Rejecting such assumptions isn’t anything new –given that it’s entirely consistent with other HIP recordings going back 30 years or more—but even so I find myself re-thinking what I thought I knew about chamber music.
The proportions are fundamentally altered, not because the instruments are so different so much as due to an entirely different aural shape. I am perplexed because in spite of myself, I did not expect this. For example when I hear Tafelmusik accompanying singers the orchestra tends to be gentler, less likely to drown out a singing voice.
But individually? These instruments are quirky, sometimes unruly sounding. Indeed, the reason modern instruments have been the dominant choice is because they’re so reliable. In these delicate pieces I am suddenly seeing these composers in an entirely different way. While the melodies unfold in directions that I used to think of as predictable and tranquil, they acquire an additional performative dimension. Each instrument, each player has the eccentricity of an opera singer. Part of this comes from their entirely normal practice of avoiding vibrato. In a small group this overturns the usual expectation, making these pieces sound not just brand new to my ear, but much deeper than I ever understood.
There’s a bounce to the Mozart Menuetto that doesn’t just suggest dance, but actual conflict. There are so many sounds available –some smooth, some more jagged, some singing, some quietly plaintive—that even a simple tune such as this acquires new depths.
The highlight of the recording for me is the brief scherzo in the Haydn quartet. Subtitled “The Joke” we’re presented with a bouncy section in triple time resembling belly laughs, contrasted by a trio of glissandi phrases as silly as a feline serenade. But then again I may have an over-active imagination.
As I said earlier, I am considering a second meaning to the CD’s title “The Golden Age of the String Quartet”. If these pieces –rather than later works such as Beethoven’s mature quartets, let alone those by later composers—are not just a warm fuzzy memory but actually the pinnacle for the string quartet (that is, the time when composers brought the medium to its peak), one needs to reflect on how they sound on modern instruments. For me, modern instruments –whose agility and tuning may be superior, and whose tone tends to be subtler—are well chosen for late-romantic compositions such as Brahms’ wonderful violin sonatas, or Debussy’s Quartet. But in this period that Windermere identify as the “golden age” perhaps they make a case for being the genuine champions of these compositions, and re-orienting our notion of what constitutes the ideal for a quartet.
I’ll be watching to see where they perform, hoping to find out what additional benefit one gets from hearing them live and in person.