This season’s opening concert, by the admirable young French Quatour Agate proved as absorbing as it was demanding, for both players and audience alike. It was my first opportunity to hear them live, and their first appearance at a Coffee Concert: I hope very much that they will return. Technically assured, their performances in a trio of works revealed interpretations both forensically accurate and interpretatively alive to the most subtle variations of mood and tone.
Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805) was a prolific writer of quartets, producing around 90, more than Haydn, his contemporary. But although both are significant in the development of the form (Boccherini, himself a virtuoso cellist, generally gave greater prominence to the cello parts than Haydn) it is difficult to see their talents as equal. Haydn was, in his quartets as throughout his oeuvre, ever innovative, forward-looking, confident enough in technique to be quirky and experimental. Boccherini, by contrast, looked backward to earlier dance forms as the basis of much of his music. The result is works of great charm and virtuosity, with little sign of Sturm und Drang, rightfully edging back into the repertoire, more perhaps through recordings than on the concert platform. This music creates its own challenges for players to give it due weight. The Agates played the G Minor Quarter, Op.32, No.5 with affection and insight, while pointedly revealing the (relatively) fierce minuet.
With Bartók’s 6th Quartet entirely different territory is explored. There is little argument that the Bartók quartets are towering masterpieces of the form, complex, subtle, demanding, evoking aspects of ourselves inexpressible in other ways. His final quartet, from 1939, just before his US exile, written while his mother lay dying, is in some ways his most concentrated. There is a unity of structure in that the same folksong theme begins each of the four movements, as if the whole were a set of variations; but, at a deeper level, the marking mesto, which begins each movement, and the whole of the finale, is, I think, the truetheme of the whole. Mesto implies mournfulness as well as grief – ambiguously one may mourn for both the past, in terms of what is lost, and about the present. But mourning takes many forms – bitter irony, as in the second movement, momentary calm and reflectiveness in first and fourth, fury in the third – and within those quicksilver changes of mind and mood. Add to that ferocious demands in technique, and it is little surprise that no one performance does – or can – capture everything. That is the way with the true greats of the repertoire. One can hope for – and not too often encounter – performances very close to the ideal. And that is what we were privileged to hear.
Brahms’ Quartet No. 3 in B flat, Op.67 from 1875, after the interval, provided quite different challenges. Brahms notoriously struggled to write symphonies, and hardly less with quartets. Fortunately for us, holidays seemed to relax him, and many of his works – like this one – were written while on vacation. Of his quartets, the third is perhaps the most open in texture with rather fewer of the sometimes dense textures found elsewhere. Genuine grace is found in the delightful first movement and the charming finale. The work as a whole has lightness, but there are spots of darkness here and there. The Agate performance was superb, assured, poised, but with humour and an evident delight in the themes. This augurs well for their recording of the complete Brahms Quartets (Naïve Records), due in 2023. I very much look forward to hearing it.
The Agates have set a very high bar for the rest of the season. We owe them every accolade.