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ARCHIVE: The Modigliani Quartet

Originally published 11/13/19


Chamber Music Houston presented the Modigliani Quartet at Stude Concert Hall this evening. The Paris-based string quartet’s program consisted of Igor Stravinsky’s Three Pieces, Mozart’s ‘Dissonant’ Quartet, and Brahms Quartet No. 1. The Modigliani’s playing was consistently refined and elegant, but also surprisingly similar from piece to piece.


Stravinsky’s Three Pieces was composed shortly after ‘Sacre du Printemps’ and is in marked contrast to that rich and colorful score. Indicated in the quartet score are various markings that serve to minimize beauty of sound. The quartet did not overly emphasize those tonal instructions, giving an aesthetic rather than ascetic interpretation. I was left to wonder if their exceptional 17th and 18th century Italian instruments were too polished and polite to reproduce this 20th century music. Otherwise, their playing was immaculate, if perhaps too much so.


The quartet sounded more at home in the Mozart. After a slightly uneven opening, the first movement moved along with lightness and buoyancy. At times, cellist Francois Kieffer sounded slightly more aggressive than his partners, and first violinist Amaury Coeyteax was somewhat demure. It is possible the abrupt temperature drop in Houston last night had an effect on their sensitive old instruments. Things settled in by the Andante Cantabile second movement, where the quartet produced beautiful, blended, and balanced sounds. The final measures floated weightlessly over the stage. The third movement Menuetto danced with spirit and precision. The final Allegro molto movement was given a charming, if straightforward interpretation.


All twenty-eight of the chamber music works of Brahms are in the standard repertoire. This is a testament to his rigorous culling, with the assistance of Clara Schumann, of anything less than exceptional. His first string quartet is in C-minor, a favorite key of Beethoven, and echoes of that composer appear in the quartet. The music of Brahms typically evokes rich and thick tone colors with strong pulses and clear structure. The Modigliani quartet took a lighter approach, more transparent with less rhythmic emphasis. While quite lovely, it was a bit like expecting chocolate pudding and being served chocolate mousse. This was German music with a French accent. Bow strokes were light and textures transparent, which worked best in the lyrical second and third movements. It was in the final Allegro movement that the full weight and emotional power of Brahms emerged.


The quartet offered an encore of the Intermezzo from Quartet No. 2 by Erick Korngold. Prominently featuring violist Laurent Marfaing, this musical bonbon had flexibility and charm.



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