On Stage: Arcanto Quartett
Konzerthaus Berlin, Kleiner Saal; September 16, 2011
As its name implies, the Kleiner Saal (Small Hall) at the Konzerthaus in the center of Berlin is not big. It's smaller than Wigmore Hall in London and quite a bit smaller than Zankel Hall in New York. And this intimate setting is ideal for serious music lovers to gather and enjoy world-class chamber music, which is exactly what the Arcanto Quartett delivered the other night.
Although the ensemble's name may not be familiar to U.S. audiences, surely its members will be: the violist is international soloist Tabea Zimmerman and the cellist, Jean-Guihen Queyras, plays in Pierre Boulez’s Ensemble Intercontemporain. Violinists Antje Weithaas und Daniel Sepec are well known on the German scene and throughout Europe. In fact, all four players are of soloist caliber, and that raises the question of whether or not a quartet formed out of soloists can make chamber music as successfully as a full-time string quartet can.
If the performance the other night is anything to judge by, the answer is: absolutely, yes. These four players, who have been playing together as a quartet since 2002, have somehow found a way to harness their abilities and play as one—straddling the dialectic between the individual and the collective that cultural critic Theodor Adorno saw as the hallmark of the string quartet as a medium and as a genre.
The Arcantos began with Haydn, Op. 64, Nr. 2, Hob III: 68, pitch perfect and showing a total mastery of rhetoric. Their interpretation was mature and yet fresh at the same time, dynamics were perfectly tiered in unison, while their “floaty” bows displayed expert right-hand finger work that is rare to see under any circumstance, let alone in four players at once. In particular, Queyras ought to be singled out for his exceptional left-hand articulation in co-ordination with a priceless right hand.
If their Brahms (String Quartet in B flat, Op. 67) was a little on the light side, it became clear why after the intermission: Berg’s Lyric Suite shone and glistened as the center of gravity of the entire program.
Queyras introduced the work from the stage, pointing out that the initials of Alban Berg and Hanna Fuchs (A, B, H, F—in which B is B-flat and H is B natural in German) are encrypted in the music. The quartet is the story of a love affair, he explained, including a quote from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, “the greatest love story of all.”
Here, the Arcanto let rip.
It was the kind of playing that earns the respect of professional musicians: full of expression, technically faultless, and totally gripping.
Just after the fifth movement (of six), one of second violinist Sepec’s strings snapped. (Apparently the same thing happened the last time they played in Berlin, two years ago.) When Sepec came back onto the stage with his new string, the cellist announced from the stage: “This piece cannot be interrupted. We will play once more from the beginning.”
The audience erupted in laughter, joined by the foursome on stage, who then played the sixth movement, bringing the concert to a completely satisfying conclusion.