The Rosamunde Quartet has embarked on a new chamber music series, and on January 23rd it opened in style at the Munich Music Academy to a rather glamorous crowd that included ex-ministers, chamber music luminaries, and the composers Tigran Mansurian (b.1939) and Boris Yoffe (b.1968). The series’ name, “From the Book of Quartets”, is taken from a collection of works by Yoffe who, like other people might write journal entries or daily poems, writes one page of music for string quartet every day. Two batches of nine such “poems”, written between 2005 and 2009, were given their world premiere. Obviously very short pieces, each has just one idea which is developed with Webern-esque conciseness. Some were shy, hesitant things, others confident with short, lyrical strokes, others yet agitated and put together from phrases as if built from little toy blocks.
Eighteen of those were quite enough to set the stage for Haydn’s op.17/5 to impress. The driven performance of the quartet was entertaining in that it brought musical diversion, but hardly the last word in Haydn-playing. It was for Mansurian’s First String Quartet from 1984 to provide a highlight: Somber notes—like much of Mansurian—searching and meandering with much dialog just between the violins. Passages with notable glissandos sounded like Gloria Coates had stopped by, and the work was best when agitated, jolting the music out of its subdued mood… only to fall back into melancholy.
When classical and modern works alternate, sometimes one of the two suffer. This is particularly true when the modern works on the program have taken up all the practicing time and Haydn—in this case—is expected to be just dashed off prima vista. Haydn’s op.77/2 was no improvement over op.17, which is to say that it was unworthy of the quartet’s reputation. And on top of careless phrasing and shoddy ensemble playing, first violinist Andreas Reiner either has a bad instrument or—apart from more than his share of wrong notes—manages for a surprisingly unsatisfying tone. The instrument is the King Max Joseph Stradivari, which makes assigning the blame easier.
Maybe there was too much music on the program: A movement, each, of Haydn between Yoffe and Mansurian would have been enough, might have assured more concentrated performances of the former, and allowed even more focus on the latter. The world premiere of Tigran Mansurian’s “A Yerevan Courtyard With Mulberry Tree”, for example. It’s a beautiful work, very Pärt-like in its atmosphere of chilling tension. Mansurian’s final work of the night, “Testament” (dedicated to the head of the ECM label, Manfred Eicher) showed Schubertian airs in a gorgeous lamento which, too, works with that modern simplicity of Pärt’s barren landscapes. It’s like a string trio which sings above the second violin; immediately fetching, moving, and an ‘easy’ audience success. Best of all, this—and the Yoffe encore—was very well played, nearly redeeming what had been done unto Haydn. At the end, the audience enthusiastically applauded its own sophistication. A great evening.
“From the Book of Quartets” will include three more concerts, several film screenings, and open rehearsals. The second concert will feature Haydn’s “Seven Last Words” alternating with readings from Samuel Becket’s “Stirring Still”. Part three Luigi Nono and readings from Hölderlin, Part four more Yoffe, Bach, Haydn, and Pärt.