How do you compare the hot new string quartet you just heard performing exceptionally well to the last hot new string quartets you heard performing exceptionally well? This conundrum most recently manifests itself courtesy of Ashmont Hill Chamber Music, which on Sunday presented the Armida Quartet, “the hottest new [12-year-old] string quartet in Europe” (per AHCM’s Artistic Director Mary Beth Alger) in a fairly heavy-duty program of Smetana, Prokofiev and Beethoven at All Saints Church.
The Berlin-based Armida (named for an opera by Haydn), consisting of Martin Funda and Johanna Staemmler (JS), violins, Teresa Schwamm, viola, and Peter-Philipp Staemmler (PPS), cello, has racked up a formidable array of prizes and concerts in the prime venues of Europe. What appears to be their first US tour takes them to bits of the Northeast and Southeast.
They began, somewhat unconventionally (one normally expects Haydn or Mozart in this slot), with Smetana’s Quartet No. 1 in E Minor (1876, when the composer was 52), one of only five chamber works in the established Smetana catalogs. Subtitled “From My Life,” it came with the composer’s explicit exegesis of his intentions. The first movement, Allegro vivo appassionato, expresses his youthful ardent Romanticism (he pitched his tent in the Lisztian camp, not a great career move in conservative Prague, which led to his resettlement for some years in Sweden, of all places), with a cutting, downward-thrusting motif and a lyrical counter-theme. The second movement, a polka (well, ish) reflects the innocent days when Smetana composed light Viennese music for piano (including lots of polkas, which, if you didn’t know, originated in central Europe and not in Poland, which is why Chopin didn’t write any). The slow movement, Smetana tells us, is a love letter to his late first wife and a reflection on the role of love in general. The finale begins with exuberance and is stopped dead in its tracks by a piercing high E in the first violin, to signal the tinnitus that presaged the fairly rapid onset of the deafness that engulfed him in the 1870s, and ending soberly after the recurrence of the opening motif.
The Armida’s performance was striking in a number of respects. Schwamm began it with an impassioned and raw statement of the opening theme (she showed herself throughout the concert as a truly exceptional performer). The foursome, while adept at quick dynamic changes, never lost momentum and are definitely not averse to putting their shoulders to the wheel. In the polka PPS contributed a lively spiccato and in the very Viennese-sounding trio Funda and JS applied a very gemütlich portamento. The slow movement displayed lovely transitions from calmness to searing intensity, and in this movement they showed most effectively (they used this technique throughout the piece) their ability to shave a few cents off a tone and edge into its center for expressive purposes (a technique they did not apply to the other pieces, so we knew it was deliberate here). The finale began with lusty rustic bumptiousness and strumming pizzicati until the moment of crisis; their final fade-out was chilling.
The ensemble closed the first half of their longish program with Prokofiev’s Quartet No. 2 in F Major, op. 92 (1941), which despite being a favorite of the Parker Quartet (BMInt has caught them at it twice in recent years), is not very often performed. It arose from the rushed resettlement of Russian creative artists from Moscow and Leningrad to the hinterlands when the Germans broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact by invading the USSR. Prokofiev, Myaskovsky and others fetched up in Kabardino-Balkaria, where the composers were effectively ordered to produce works using local folk music and instruments. Obviously, a string quartet couldn’t do the latter, but Prokofiev made a point of imitating their sounds as best he could, especially the plucked string instrument the kjamantchi. While he took just about all the themes from Kabardian folk music, his set them very much in his personal style, with aggressive harmonizations and many virtuosic string effects. It has been said that there isn’t much hint that World War II was going on at the time, but the Armida’s performance brought out the martial aspects. This was especially true in the first movement (of three), which erupted very strongly right out of the box, with gruff rhythmic punch and a marching ethos that recalled some of early Britten. The slow middle movement opened with a becalmed, affectless diffidence, later to evoke the empty spaces not so much of Kabardino but the steppes so favored by earlier generations of Russian composers. We loved Schwamm’s tight tremolos in this movement, and the perfect intonation of the several passages for pairs of instruments in two and three octave parallels. The bouncy finale featured dexterous passagework and a brief but intense cello cadenza into which PPS dug deeply. Curiously, we didn’t really feel as much of the exoticism in the instrumental sonorities (compared to other performances we’ve heard) as the virtuosity with which Prokofiev’s writing imbued them.
It was back to E minor for the closer, Beethoven’s Quartet No. 8, op. 59 no. 2, the second of the three Razumovsky quartets. As with other central components of the standard repertoire, we won’t rehearse a description of the piece itself, a decent history and precis of which is here. We will say, however, that there is some dispute among commentators as to whether Beethoven meant his vehement treatment of the Russian theme (provided by Count Razumovsky, an ardent collector of Russian folk melodies) as a sarcastic joke. If this be the case, the joke continued into the finale, whose main rondo theme always enters in the wrong key (C major) before eventually settling or being jerked into E minor. The scherzo as a whole, despite its somber E minor key, is one of Beethoven’s jokiest, the outer sections of which offer a kind of stumbling syncopated mazurka that forever defies toe-tappers.
At the outset, the Armida players stressed the mysterious qualities of Beethoven’s mercurial starts and stops. As the intense first movement progressed, they displayed all the ensemble solidarity one would expect of “the hottest new string quartet in Europe.” Their treatment of the heaven-awed slow movement went for a majestic ethereality, with superb dynamic shading of both notes and phrases, and a perfectly detached yet flowing rendition by each player of the tick-tock accompaniment figure. In the aforementioned scherzo, they were not perhaps as savage with the Russian tune as others have been, and were not bent on making the case, as some commentators have, that the contrapuntal settings of the tune bespoke satire. Their finale, again with that superb spiccato articulation from Schwamm and PPS, was rambunctious, vigorous, and exceptionally tight.