The Modigliani Quartet is a decade-old ensemble from Paris which has frequently spent time in the U.S., including winning the 2006 Young Concerts Auditions in New York. Its Maverick debut, on the afternoon of August 3rd , showed numerous virtues and no detectible weaknesses. In a long program of three substantial quartets, the Modigliani Quartet played with consistent excellence. Its sound and approach are characteristically French, superbly executed.
This level of approval doesn’t extend to all of the repertoire, though. I can understand why a French ensemble would want us to hear a neglected major work by a well known French composer. But the large output of Camille Saint-Saëns often poses problems for me. There seem to be good reasons why so little of his music is frequently performed these days. This composer’s work is not consistently inspired; when he is good he can be very very good, but a lot of the time he’s not all that interesting. The String Quartet No. 1, in E Minor, Op. 112, had every reason to be worthwhile, including the composer’s long experience by the time he wrote it (1899, when he was 64), his location (the Canary Islands), and its dedicatee (the great Belgian violinist Eugen Ysaÿe). It’s not bad music. In this committed performance, it almost sounded like good music. But to these ears, it seems synthetic, the product of an impulse to compose rather than of genuine inspiration. The opening Allegro, for example, came off sounded episodic rather than unified, its drama an imitation. The finale, polluted with some Regerian slithery chromatics, concluded with an exciting coda, but up to that point I found the piece uninspiring.
The contrast between genius and inspiration was made clear as we heard Schumann’s String Quartet No. 3, in A, Op. 41, No. 3. Saint-Saëns was certainly a musical genius, as we learn from his amazing achievements as a child or his adult ability to read an orchestral score from sight at the piano. But Schumann had much more to say in his quartet. I might have thought I prefer Germanic Schumann playing. Not in this case, as the Modigliani Quartet gave us truly beautiful Schumann, light in tone but intense and focused. The touching Adagio was really lovely in this performance, and I enjoyed the dancy rhythms of the finale. This was a distinguished Schumann interpretation.
Last month, with a last-minute substitute, the Calder Quartet gave us a very well played Ravel Quartet which felt heavy to me. I don’t intend to berate the Calders, who under the circumstances gave us a remarkably fine concert. But what I wanted to hear in the Ravel Quartet arrived with great enthusiasm in the Modigliani Quartet’s performance. Just as one example, Ravel’s tremolos sounded rather turgid in the Calder reading, magical as played by the Modigliani Quartet. The lean quality of the Modigliani’s sound didn’t interfere with big climaxes. It was the right sound for the music.
One might have thought this was enough music for any performers, but this generous ensemble gave us a delicious little dessert, an ingenious arrangement of the Polka from Shostakovich’s ballet “The Age of Gold,” played in a way that brought out all its delicious humor. I’d pay for tickets to hear this group again.