The best quartet members contribute equally and carefully to music that transcends the boundaries of their own playing, participating in something greater than themselves. The higher the individual technical facility, the greater the potential for expressive nuance, calibrated among independent musicians and polished by virtuosity and rehearsal. At Jordan Hall Friday evening in the Celebrity Series, the Philharmonia Quartett Berlin couldn’t have presented a more utopian image of symbiotic interdependence—teamwork and family, concession and assertion, love and drama and discord, a microcosm of society. Memories of their 2011 outing of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden rang in my ear as I settled in for the performance. Even with those vivid memories raising high the standard, this astonishing quartet did not disappoint in a program that traced the early history of the literature and featured above all, impeccable ensemble.
The Berliners began with a mature work by the founder of the modern repertory, Joseph Haydn, bringing lightness and verve to his Op. 64 No. 4. Haydn’s short phrases came across with carefully delineated dynamic levels, dispatched with well-matched sound and speed. The clarity of the quartet’s phrasing and the rich fullness of their sound made for an intoxicating combination. Rarely is Haydn both so clear and so lush. Dietmar Schwalke’s warm cello tone, stirred with a wide vibrato, wrapped the ensemble in the kind of opulent sound they maintained for the entire concert. The character contrasts, highlighted by shifts in softness, came particularly to the fore in the paired phrases of rustic celebration and quiet contemplation that start the second movement, and pizzicati from the trio rang beautifully in Jordan Hall. They never lost tempo in the final movement and flew through the piece with impeccably matched bows and bouncy rhythms.
The take on Beethoven’s Op. 18 No. 6 then further raised an already lofty bar, noticeable particularly with the delicate second theme’s subtle phrasing. To quibble with Daniel Stabrawa’s scales late in the transition, or the occasional moments when the ensemble became unhinged in some of the particularly busy moments, is to split hairs. I’ll trade a scale any day for the kind of ensemble unity and gorgeous tone with which the quartett plays this music. In fact Stabrawa may have been at his best in the movement that followed, bringing a delicate yet warm sound to a wonderfully natural and unmannered performance. The even articulation of the final Haydn movement returned for the Beethoven scherzo surrounding a very free central trio. Op. 18 No. 6 is particularly famous for an adagio section, labeled La Malinconia, that acts as a slow introduction to its final movement. It’s a short section, emotionally affecting through sharp contrasts and oblique harmonies, that opens a window onto Beethoven’s mercurial late style. The quartet came together for their most detailed, most perfectly phrased playing yet. Vibrato, tone, and dynamics all contributed to the profoundly organic ensemble. The force that the Berliners released while barreling toward the repeat of this section nestled in the midst of a more conventional final movement gave us a look at what energy they’d left in the tank for the beefier, more romantic Schumann that would follow after intermission.
Not only did the Philharmonia Quartett Berlin draw from the heart of the string quartet repertoire on this night, it also focused on composers that define the band these four principal players call home: the Berlin Philharmonic. Obviously Beethoven and Haydn occupy a central place in the Berlin Phil’s history, but so does Schumann, especially with the inspired recent readings and recordings under Simon Rattle. So it made sense that they would finish the program with Schumann’s Quartet in A minor, Op. 41 No. 1, from his chamber music year, 1842. As Aaron Grad mentioned in his program notes, not only does Schumann draw on a number of both older and contemporary styles more this work—Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Mendelssohn (to whom to quartet was dedicated)—he also sets the stage for such subsequent masterpieces in the genre as Brahms. Surprisingly, the ensemble maintained some of the classical lightness in the beginning of this quartet that marked its traversal of the previous two. Soon storminess entered to complement the delicacy. The players brought wonderful lilt to the main theme. The third movement was maybe the highlight of the evening, with wonderful performances by Christian Stadelmann and Neithard Resa, the second violinist and violist, as well as Strabawa and Schwalke. The final movement brought a strong, rousing end to a very satisfying concert.
Their Malinconia reading just before intermission made me desperately want to hear the Philarmonia Quartett Berlin’s late Beethoven, and my wish came true when the group encored with the Alla danza tedesca fourth movement of Op. 130, with its delicious swells and unpredictable bass line that brings ambiguity to the inversions.
The second Celebrity Series appearance by the Philharmonia Quartett Berlin was certainly as impressive and satisfying as the first.
Matthew Heck is a musicology doctoral student at Brandeis.