In its first appearance with Celebrity Series Boston, the Quatuor Mosaïques gave us two Mozart quartets that represent the zenith of the Viennese classical style, as well as a landmark early Haydn quartet that broke decisive ground in developing that style. Performing on historical instruments with gut strings, they created a rich, complex sound, demanding sustained quiet and attentiveness from Saturday’s audience (see a BMInt interview here).
Not only did Quatuor Mosaïques perform on period instruments, but they also boldly performed according to a period aesthetic, refusing merely to “grab” us and seduce us. They brought a sincerity, maturity and elegance that have become all but alien to us moderns. We are the outlaw children of Lord Byron, intoxicated by excess, the children of IMAX and swift cars racing in the night, of electric cities and thunder. We expect to be thrilled, wowed. We like our Vermeers brilliantly illuminated with artificial light in stunning museums. Quatuor Mosaïques (Erich Höbarth, Andrea Bischof, violins; Anita Mitterer, viola; and Christophe Coin, cello) forced us out of our expectations by performing the most treasured gems of our classical repertoire in their natural light, unvarnished, uncontaminated, towering with restraint and wisdom, to unforgettable effect.
As a case in point, consider the opening measures of Mozart’s “Hunt” Quartet, K. 458 in B-flat Major, with which the concert began, “the fruit,” as Mozart said to Haydn, “of a long and laborious labor.” Usually, these opening measures are given a jaunty, “catchy tune” quality. Immediately noticeable at the outset, a slight pause after the opening upbeat preceded a saliently strong downbeat led by Bischof’s second violin, followed by a rich blending of the individual voices, coming together at moments into a single glow of sound. This alternation between separation and unity became the most striking characteristic difference felt by our modern ears.
Similarly in the second movement minuet, a transparent ma non troppo allowed the mood to wander and express a genuine feeling of summer idleness bordering on the idyllic. An elegiac mood obtained in the adagio through the cantabile sweetness of Höbarth’s tender and profound first violin, which approached operatic theatricality without indulging in it, engaging in a duet with Coin’s cello, as though embracing suffering through music lifted it into dignity and detachment. The final Allegro assai felt whimsical and free, allowing direct and immediate shifts of mood and conveying the notion that wit is a form of wisdom, protecting our fragile hearts.
As our hearing became more attuned to the subtlety of Quatuor Mosaïques’ interpretation, we were treated next to Mozart’s Quartet in D Minor K. 421, the second of the “Haydn quartets”, and the only one in a minor key. Here, at the very outset, the pathos of the opening measures brought forth a jaggedness that forced us out of any potential complacency. The individual voices clearly defined, Mitterer’s viola conveyed an air of poignant, exploratory unpredictability to the development. They took the Andante at an almost adagio pace, with strong changes in dynamics, especially in the Trio section. The da capo, soft and delicate, seemed to convey an understanding that the point is not to express “raw” emotion but to transform emotion, through restraint, into something distinctly elegant and human. Similarly, the Menuetto had an elegant and lyrical quality, with the sweetness of the violin taming the chromaticism and transforming it into a miracle of playfulness tinged with adult detachment. The final Allegro ma non troppo, often performed with an impish wit, conveyed an august, dignified feel, bordering on the haughty, simultaneously light and serious. We felt time slipping through our fingers, sadly joyful, weighed down and reflective, the return of the theme suddenly clearly defined and anxious, the final measures (simultaneously in D major and minor) resolving definitively on the final chord.
Although inspiration for Mozart’s six “Haydn quartets” is usually cited as Haydn’s Op. 33 quartets, it is certainly true that Haydn’s Op. 20 set of “divertimenti a quattro” constituted a major step forward in Haydn’s development of the form. Op. 20, no. 2, in C major, actually the third in order of composition, is the most modern-sounding of the six. The systematic working out of the final movement fugues in no. 5 (Fuga a due Soggetti), no. 6 (Fuga a tre Soggetti) and then no. 2 with its Fuga a 4 Soggetti, is clear and the bold step of freeing the cello from its traditional accompanying role is evident in the opening notes of the first movement. It is a stunningly free, original work, full of surprises, with unexpected twists and turns.
In many respects the Haydn was the highlight of the evening, confounding our expectations. The Moderato first movement sounded clear and crisp, joyful, played with judiciously employed light vibrato, the development featuring a wonderful confrontation between first violin and cello. Haydn’s second movement Capriccio, perhaps the most startling to modern ears, alternated a strong unison declamation, firm and dramatic, with a lyrical, dreamy response, as though foreshadowing Beethoven’s own inventiveness in the slow movement of the fourth piano concerto. At the end, Höbarth’s first violin floated gracefully above it all, leading without pause into the Minuetto musette, imbued here with a tinge of nostalgic sentimentality, interrupted by the return of the dark mood of the adagio, reminding us that we live, play and dance on the edge of a very tall cliff.
Most striking in the finale, where we have come to expect a display of virtuosity, we heard a marvelously gentle approach which gave it a magnificent elegance. By interpreting the intellectual climax of the piece with such restraint, Quatuor Mosaïques successfully forced us to concede that Haydn’s gift to us is to achieve a deeply emotional reflective detachment instead of merely thrilling us for a moment.
The audience responded with a heartfelt ovation. Recognizing that we had understood their special aesthetic, the quartet reiterated Haydn’s gift to us with a moving and profound reading of the Andante of his Op. 33, No. 6 quartet.
Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.