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Haydn, Wagner & Mendelssohn

Minguet Quartet at Conway Hall, London, 28 April 2013

A welcome return to London of the Minguet Quartet which, on this showing, is currently as fine a group as you'll hear anywhere.

Their Haydn was high-powered and faultless in ensemble and tone colours; very much 21st C playing, such as likely could not have been envisaged by the composer.

The Wagner (never intended for the public, published when the Wagners were "pressed for debt") is a rarity for quartet; the absence of winds for variety of tone colours emphasises its monothematicism, and it might become boring if attempted by a less refined group than the Minguets. Aroa Sorin is their new violist since they were last here and the ensemble is perfect; I noted especially the gorgeous tone of Annette Reisinger's viola, a special instrument?

The late Mendelssohn pieces are concert rarities and ended a programme which attracted with its unusual repertoire and satisfied as did their last appearance. Members of the LPO who met the Minguets in Moscow recently had never heard of Conway Hall...

I hope that the Minguets will remain loyal to Conway Hall's atmosphere and acoustic, arguably the best for chamber music in the Capital, still a well kept secret since 1878 !

Peter Grahame Woolf

Haydn, Widmann, Mendelssohn and Bach
Minguet Quartet at Conway Hall, London, 3 December 2006

A world class string quartet from Germany, with an impressive range of CDs to their credit, the Minguets gave an enthralling recital at Conway Hall, which (from the right seats) has arguably amongst the best acoustics for chamber music in the capital - heresy?

Haydn's Op 20/5 was marvellously blended and balanced, with ravishing decoration of the melodies in the slow movement. It may seem unoriginal to start a quartet recital with a such a work, but the joy of it is that there are so many fine, different Haydn quartets one is unlikely to hear the same one too often, so each comes up fresh.

There are many fewer Mozart examples from which to choose; his K. 458 in Bb might have been a more obvious opener to precede Widmann's No 3. But perhaps that would have seemed provocative whilst this country is coming to terms with the still controversial fox hunting ban?

There is a special relation between these players and Jörg Widmann, composer/clarinettist prominent in Germany, with whom they have recorded Rihm's clarinet quintet. Widmann's Hunt Quartet, written in 2003 when he was c.30, is in a single movement which requires dramatic gesture and uninhibited vocalisations from the players. The music is grounded in a relentlessly varied hunting tune, its pervasive rhythm based on one of the pieces in Schumann's Papillons.

Against that the players explore all the "non-normal" sound possibilities that can be extracted from the various parts of their instruments, with which we had been familiarising ourselves with during last week's Lachenmann Festival. But in Lachenmann's radical austerity the sound explorations became the substance of the music, without the comforting binding of a "tune", which helped the Widmann to be an unexpected "hit" with all but a few of the London Chamber Society's conservatively inclined regulars at Conway Hall.

That piece is certainly one for young string quartets to explore, and I look forward to hearing others of Widmann's quartets. [See my review of his notably original cello concerto.]

The Minguet Quartet's compelling account of Mendelssohn's last quartet, composed in response to the death of his beloved sister Fanny, was unusual in tempering the prevailing vehemence and unrestrained anguish emphasised in many performances (e.g. The Vellinger Quartet in 1994*) with quieter passages suggesting some coming to terms with mortality; his own death was not long ahead. And that was reinforced by the calm encore chosen; Contrapunctus I from Bach's The Art of Fugue.

The Minguet's made this UK stop-over to add lustre to the London Chamber Music Series at Conway Hall after playing in Denmark the previous day, and before flying to Indonesia next morning. They told me they are next scheduled to appear in England 2009...

Until then, there are many CDs to explore**; see their website.

Peter Grahame Woolf

* - - giving full power and vehemence to Felix Mendelssohn's angry memorial for his sister Fanny shortly before his own death. This Op 80 of 1847 famously won the Vellinger Quartet their victory in the London String Quartet Competition 1994, after which they led a performance of it in the Barbican Centre by all the participating quartets conducted by Sir Yehudi Menuhin; unforgettable! - -

** Three very different CDs have been received from Minguet Quartet upon return from their Indonesian tour, exemplifying the range of their interests and expertise.

Fuchs String Quartets. Volume 2. No.4 in A, Op. 106 & No.3 in C, Op. 71; Dabringhaus und Grimm [MDG 603 1002-2]
Rihm Quartets 7, 8 & 9 [col Legno 20213]
Rihm Vier Male & Vier Studien (Minguet Quartet with Jörg Widmann, clarinet) [Ars Musici: B000EQ44FW]

The first of these discs joins two quartets from a near-forgotten composer, who was a friend of Brahms and did not seek to go beyond his idiom in later years. 'A survivor from a vanished world' (Calum MacDonald in IRR) he was replaced as a composition teacher by Schoenberg. Robert Fuchs' 4th Quartet (1916) is in the style he was brought up with, apparently blissfully unconcerned with the cataclysms of the changing musical world. The third is more expansive and reckoned the best of them, with some freedom within its classicism; introducing new themes unexpectedly during the four well contrasted movements. These quartets are refreshing to hear, always mellifluous and given here affectionately and with lovely tone and impeccable tuning. They'd go well at music clubs and, indeed, at the Conway Hall Sunday Concerts, whose audiences tend to be conservative but were able to embrace Widmann's Hunt Quartet.

Widmann himself features as solo clarinettist and chamber music colleague in the more approachable of two Rihm CDs. The four solo Male and the Four Studies (effectively a substantial clarinet quintet) are redolent of Brahms in the background (not everyone would agree) and confirm the versatility of the quartet and the exceptional skill and musicianship of Widmann as performer. Rewarding and recommended [cover picture to right].

Wolfgang Rihm's string quartets (at least a dozen of them) are harder nuts to crack, but hearing nos. 7, 8 & 9 left me intrigued and wanting to return to them.

The exploration of unusual sounds and 'noise' was less off-putting than might have been the case before recent exposure to a week-long Lachenmann festival; even though the two composers are not best friends, so we learnt. The notes are complex and voluminous, with musical examples to be found only in the German version; thinner paper would have made that unnecessary. It would have helped also to have timed references besides track nos; most listeners are unlikely to have the scores to hand.

PGW 23/12/2006

Jan Röhrmann