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Mosaic of Articulation, Phrasing, and Architecture


Basilica San Marco

The chamber world brims with accomplished string quartets operating at the most rarefied heights. For the last three decades, the Austrian Quatuor Mosaïques has been counted among the more distinctive of such top-tier groups. Founded by members of the Concentus Musicus Wien, they were among the earliest to perform quartet literature on historical  instruments. BMInt had some questions for the group in anticipation of its Celebrity Series concert Saturday evening October 14th at Jordan Hall.

FLE: Le Monde remarked that you play “with finesse, dramatic intent, grace, intelligence, and beautiful sonority,” and many are especially impressed with the articulate transparency of your Haydn recordings. But one wonders why they used “intent.” How do you achieve drama in large spaces with instruments more suitable for intimate rooms?

Collective response from Quatuor Mosaïques: It has not much to do with plain volume of sound. We agree that it is more difficult to transport our intention in a big hall, but then we expect from the audience a certain readiness to adapt to this situation. What is important in a drama are character—something happens—and it contains dialogue (going back to Aristotle).

Did you start out with gut strings and evolve your style from what worked with them?

We started our quartet 30 years ago using gut strings, and of course they influenced our way of playing. Gut strings are richer in overtones, and educate the musician concerning transparency of sound and the carefully varied use of vibrato. We all have an education on modern instruments from studying with Sandor Vegh or Andre Navarra, and also experience using period instruments, with Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Jordi Savall.

Did you rely on critical accounts of early performances to help you define your style?

For every musician a certain degree of information and feedback is important. But finally, it is essential to find a personal style.

Do you know of early recordings that are trustworthy documents of playing styles that interest you?

We find the Busch, the Capet, and the Vegh quartets very inspiring. However, we never tried to imitate their style.

What do you think of the Czech Quartet’s 1928 recordings of Dvořák with the composer’s son playing second violin? (The first movement of the American is here.) The style when that recording was made featured much less vibrato than we hear today but much more portamento. There are overall also a delicacy, personal expressivity, and reluctance to oversell. Is it possible that Mozart, Beethoven, and Haydn expected this kind of expression?

Speaking about the Czech Quartet’s recording, we agree to all you said about their playing. Portamento, however, is a very personal decision and also much dependent on fashion. We think that a singing quality including portamento is necessary, but should never be exaggerated. To know what Haydn and Mozart expected is not really possible. We have sources, autographs, letters, and statements, all of which tell us a lot, but even that is often a matter of interpretation.

We can expect astonishing perfection of ensemble and the surmounting of every technical problem from string quartets today. Is something lost from earlier eras?

Today’s demand for perfection can take away some of the necessary spontaneity and readiness to take risks. To quote Harnoncourt: “Perfection is often achieved at the expense of beauty”.

Is it pleasurable to practice 40 hours a week to maintain such a level of execution?

Rehearsing is a very private matter. Anyway, every musician has a lot of responsibility toward the composer.

The best quartets convey different qualities of sound for every period they play. One I recently presented began with Purcell Fantasias (here) and ended with the Beethoven Cavatina (here). Do you agree that the composers are well-differentiated? Did the Purcell sound as if it was being played on gut strings? Was the Beethoven strange-sounding, or inevitable? Naturally the journey from Purcell to Beethoven is longer than the one you are taking in Boston from Haydn to Mozart. Nevertheless, can you tell readers what differences to listen for in sound and style?

From Purcell to Beethoven there is a big musical development: to follow the content and character of the music leads us to our personal view of the piece.

We ask for your understanding that we don’t give any comments concerning other interpretations.

Haydn quartets are often more accessible regarding character and purpose (joy, humor, sorrow, anger …). Mozart’s quartets are much tighter in texture. To quote Mozart in his dedication to Haydn: these six quartets were composed as “the fruit of long and laborious endeavor”. The audience will have to make an effort to get into this.

Should attendees pay to sit close and hear four individuals, or farther back, where a more blended sound obtains?

The way we found our name: In the Basilica San Marco in Venice there are fantastic mosaics on the floor. If you look at them from a close distance, you can see all the fine details like the beauty of the stone itself. From the first gallery, one experiences more of the shapes, and even further up you get the whole picture of the story within the architecture. In the same way we can perceive music from different distances physically and mentally, thinking about articulation, phrasing, and overall architecture. So it will be up to every listener (from every place in the hall) to adjust the distance for himself.

Quatuor Mosaïques
Boston Celebrity Series
Jordan Hall Oct. 14

Tickets here.

Mozart: Quartet in B-flat Major, K.458, the Hunt
Mozart: Quartet in D minor, K.421
Haydn: Quartet in C Major, Opus 20 No. 2

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