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Can string quartets save the world?

The recent Amsterdam String Quartet Biennale explored various aspects of the string quartet format, including the many life lessons it offers us

Four people whose lives are intricately entangled – musically, geographically and financially: not The Beatles or Rolling Stones, but your average string quartet. Rather than rock music and drugs, their lives revolve around arguments about bow direction, use of vibrato and how to interpret Schubert’s accents. Audiences may not witness such rehearsal-room conflicts, but they experience the resulting on-stage dynamic – the glances, the bodies swaying together, the mirrored hand gestures and, of course, the music. Observing this intense human interaction at close quarters is part of the magic and compelling intimacy of chamber music.

Last week’s inaugural String Quartet Biennale in Amsterdam, 27 January to 3 February, offered the chance to revel in this chemistry, but also to get closer to understanding the way a string quartet functions and the importance of the musical form. More than 20 groups from across the world converged in the various spaces and halls of Amsterdam’s modern Muziekgebouw, and concerts, discussions, classes and events ran from 9.30am to 11.30pm every day. These examined every aspect of the form – philosophical, historical, musical and social, and in ways that were often quirky, challenging and original.

Emerson Quartet with Gary Hoffman

This eclecticism is at the very heart of the philosophy of its founder, Yasmin Hilberdink. When she decided to start the festival, building on her experience of ten years booking a chamber music series at the small hall of the Concertgebouw, she took inspiration from an unusual source, as she told me: ‘When the Rijksmuseum reopened after its refurbishment in 2013, it reopened in a different way. It was the same paintings, but they were presented differently – they were telling a story. Previously when I went, there would only be five other people there, but afterwards, it was full, because they was a nice café, they communicated well, and they were telling a story in a way that I understood it. I realised it’s not the art form itself that is old-fashioned or dying. That’s what groups worry about – will string quartets exist in 50 years? It’s all about how you tell the story.’

Alfred Brendel masterclass

‘Be very careful with non-vibrato playing. It’s in fashion at the moment but there are very few places where it’s justified’

There were plenty of stories to follow – with the breadth of groups involved, you could observe the full life journey. For student groups, there were daily foyer performances before concerts and masterclasses across the week, including one with retired piano legend Alfred Brendel. Here one witnessed the level of self-examination and criticism required to succeed. He exhorted one young quartet: ‘Schubert was the discoverer of fever – you don’t play fever’; ‘It should break their heart’; ‘You sound like a machine – don’t lose the spirit’; ‘Think of a slow wind that goes into the trees’. The intense attention to detail was an insight into how musicians think, and how young groups have to be flexible, humble – and tough. (In passing he also brought up a current scourge of string playing, for which I was personally grateful: ‘Be very careful with non-vibrato playing. It’s in fashion at the moment but there are very few places where it’s justified. Keep the difference between non-vibrato and pianissimo. Senza vibrato is not eerie, it’s dead.’)

Laurence Dutton and Quartetto di Cremona

At the further end of the career journey, the Emerson Quartet performed both on its own and supplemented by other players. After 40 years as one of the pre-eminent American groups and coming off a heavy touring schedule, its famous brassy, energetic sound was evident (since 2013 with the added refinement of British cellist Paul Watkins), but the players seemed a little tired. Even so, their experience and communication skills rubbed off on collaborators Quartetto di Cremona, violist Laurence Dutton eyeballing his younger colleagues to musical unity. The gripping human alchemy of chamber music also came through with the addition of cellist Gary Hoffman in Schubert’s Quintet in C, his sensitive playing softening the performance.

Each day of the festival was bookended by early Haydn and late Beethoven, the two most revolutionary sets of the whole literature. Not only did Haydn invent the quartet form, but within each quartet he also created and played with more ideas than other composers riffed on over a lifetime (back to comparison with The Beatles). By contrast, Beethoven seemed to deconstruct the form and take it in new directions that even now sound as if they’ve just been invented – even by comparison with the many modern works on offer at the festival. (In his talk on late Beethoven, illustrated with his own recordings, Alfred Brendel described these works as synthesising the past, present and future.)

Jörg Widmann and Signum Quartet

So on one night we had the Signum Quartet finding the otherworldly, slow-motion beauty of Beethoven’s op.132 Heiliger Dankgesang, and the next afternoon, coming back to this sound world in a performance of Jörg Widmann’s complete string quartets. Talking before the performance, Widmann described the pressure he felt from Haydn and Beethoven as he wrote his first quartet in 1997, throwing away 200 openings. The one he kept consists of a terrible cracking noise followed by a quiet, fragile tone, representing the weight he felt on his shoulders. From this gesture onwards he succeeds in simultaneously honouring the tradition while teasing it apart and finding fresh beauty, tonal qualities and narratives.

Occasionally, textures that Haydn might barely have understood suddenly resolved into a bare chord that somehow contained the essence of his forefathers, yet without parody or distance. The players were called to bow the sides of their instruments, whip their bows or finger the strings, exaggerating the intrinsic theatre of the quartet dynamic and its gestures – particularly in the whacky horror of the Third Quartet, ‘Hunting Quartet’. As well as the sheer technical dexterity and accuracy required, the members of the Signum Quartet proved to be superb actors.

Quiroga Quartet performs Black Angels

Of course, striking string instruments in unusual ways is not in itself revolutionary – as we were reminded by a performance of Crumb’s iconic 1970 Black Angels by the Quiroga Quartet. Written in response to the Vietnam War, representing the battle of good against evil, Crumb uses all sorts of musical symbolism and references – pitting the numbers 13 and 7 against each other and including the Dies Irae melody and a fragment of Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’. He has the amplified quartet bowing wine glasses, banging gongs and even playing the cello upside down, all of which were achieved with utter commitment by the players, and in contrast to their emotionally vivid and flexible performance of Schubert’s original work in the first half.

‘If you want to be a musician you have to learn how to count and you have to count for the rest of your life’

In the regular 11.30 Masterclass strand, there were fascinating insights into the working life of a quartet. The Emersons’ Philip Setzer read through Webern’s Six Bagatelles with students, showing both the players and audience how to read the composer’s detailed markings, with nice stories about his own mentors, including Samuel Rhodes (‘If you want to be a musician you have to learn how to count and you have to count for the rest of your life.’) To a packed audience that followed the music on handouts, he demonstrated the care with which Webern’s composite rhythms have to be put together, but made a case for the music being played romantically: ‘Just because it’s abstract doesn’t mean it should be emotionless and cold. You have to get it lined up and figured out intellectually and mathematically, but that’s the same with a Bach fugue, and you don’t play that without emotion.’

The Doric Quartet gave us a rare glimpse into the process of the first rehearsal, approaching Beethoven’s op.130 quartet as if for the first time. They start by playing it slowly to understand the harmonic shape and find the tension and release. This slow practice is essential, as the viola player Hélène Clément explained: ‘It means we know as a group what we want to listen to, which in concerts gives us the ability to be flexible but unified, because we’re listening to the same thing.’ She also revealed the secret to their work together – they don’t ever comment on each other’s individual playing, only on the demands of the music, which must take remarkable self-discipline. Another string quartet life lesson came from cellist John Myerscough: ‘It’s easy to think you’re playing too quietly, but if every time you think you want to get louder, you get quieter, you will save the world.’ There was also an interesting discussion about how they were using ‘transitional’ bows to play Beethoven, of the sort that would have been used around 1800. As they played the same passage with both modern and transitional bows, the difference in the clarity of articulation was plain to hear.

Coffee talk with Alex Ross and Cibrán Sierra Vázquez

‘The string quartet represents the ideals that we recognise as those of the Enlightenment: four equals who debate freely and fraternally’

The 10.15 Coffee Talk strand also offered interesting perspectives. One with American music writer Alex Ross and Quiroga second violinist Cibrán Sierra Vázquez set out the many benefits and models that the string quartet offers: social justice, diversity, intimacy, teamwork, pedagogy and even democracy. Vázquez explained: ‘The string quartet represents the ideals that we recognise as those of the Enlightenment: four equals who debate freely and fraternally. Previously it was a democratic tool to educate audiences and to open up the secrets of language and knowledge, but now promoters regard it as candy for a small number of elite listeners. That is not in the music and was not in the head of Haydn or Schoenberg. It’s the most democratic tool to bring cultures together and to educate musicians and citizens in the ways of debating and living together – a tool to create a better society.’

Asked what the digital revolution means for string quartets, Ross acknowledged that many composers were incorporating technology, but argued for the humanity of the format: ‘Something about the form stands apart because of its intimacy. It’s about a group of people in a room responding on ancient instruments in a contemporary language. The string quartet is not an escape from contemporary society, but it is an alternative, rooted in purely human, face-to-face, intimate communication. There is a quality intrinsic to the form that is antagonistic to the life we live now, and it is to be treasured.’

Vázquez commented on his experience in a quartet and teaching groups: ‘A string quartet is a school of how to behave in society. Everyone should learn to play in quartets. No other pedagogical tool is as powerful. The three other players are mirrors of your self. You have to know how to give and take criticism. The possibilities are so exportable to other situations, but it’s a tool that’s misregarded.’

Over the four days I spent at the festival, nearly every event I attended was full and there was a good buzz, whether for performances of the classics or cutting-edge contemporary pieces, young or established players (and not entirely due to the Amsterdam tradition of offering free wine at the interval). This is the first music festival to focus on the string quartet genre for such a length of time, with such depth, breadth and imagination and if its conclusions are anything to go by, the string quartet might just save humanity.

The next Quartet Biennale runs 25 January – 1 February 2020

All photos copyright Ben Bonouvrier

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