The Signum Quartet is a distinctive German ensemble with a youthful energy and an Old World sound. They made their U.S. debut at the Goethe-Institut Boston on Monday night with Jörg Widmann, a German clarinetist and composer, as their featured guest. The program focused on two late Classical works: Joseph Haydn’s Quartet Op.76 No. 2, written in the transitional years between Mozart’s death and Beethoven’s ascendency, and Carl Maria von Weber’s Clarinet Quintet Op. 34, which sounds like a Rossini overture stretched into four movements. Between these works was Widmann’s String Quartet No. 3 “Hunting Quartet,” a recent work that uses musical references and outlandish theatrics to warn the audience against taking it too seriously.
It was disappointing to hear an ensemble this good make its national debut with only one great piece of repertoire. From the first moments of the Haydn it was plain that this is an ensemble with roots in the lineage of eminent Europeans, and that it performed with the benefit of a large body of transmitted knowledge and expertise (indeed, they studied with the Melos and Alban Berg Quartets). Yet the Signum is neither stodgy nor grim: its members have a vibrant stage presence and a musical naturalness that proves they do not present inherited interpretations.
The Haydn alone made the concert worthwhile: violinists Kerstin Dill and Annette Walther, violist Xandi van Dijk and cellist Thomas Schmitz gave a touching performance that brought out the dark colors and rhetorical resonances of this music. Haydn’s humor, particularly evident in the finale, is deeply humane and imbedded in the structure of the music: he effectively sets up little musical jokes for later punctuation.
Widmann’s humor, on the other hand, is superficial and snide, relying on references to Beethoven’s motoric rhythms and descent into extreme instrumental effects. Screaming, theatrical pounding and scraping are no longer shocking or original. Truly jolting musical moments come from careful setup and manipulation of expectations, not simply from being loud and noisy. In remarks from the stage, Widmann noted that he was anxious about composing for string quartet given the weight of the canon; it seems his solution was to write something that blatantly declares its own unseriousness to avoid being judged on the same terms.
As a clarinetist in the Weber, Widmann produced a dark German sound unfamiliar to our Boston ears: it’s less liquid and flexible than the tone prized by Americans, but it offers a complex reediness that is also pleasing. (He plays a German instrument with a different key system and mouthpiece than the internationally standard Boehm model.) Weber’s Clarinet Quintet may be just a footnote between the quintets of Mozart and Brahms, but it offers a beautiful slow fantasia that stands apart from the other movements which lie closer to opera buffa.
Though there is no reason why chamber music must always be a medium for profound statements, the Signum Quartet would nevertheless do well to return with a weightier program.