Monday, October 29, 2018

Ensemble PHOENIX probes the new chamber music concept introduced by Haydn's Op.20 "Sun" Quartets

Haydn’s “Sun” Quartets were the focus of Ensemble PHOENIX’ recent chamber concerts. Performing the works on period instruments were Moshe Aron Epstein-flute, Ya’akov Rubinstein-violin, Rachel Ringelstein-viola and PHOENIX founder and director Myrna Herzog-’cello. This writer attended the concert at the Eden-Tamir Music Center, Ein Kerem, Jerusalem, on October 26th 2018.

Joseph Haydn’s opus 20 quartets, composed in 1772 when the composer was 40, were titled the “Sun” Quartets simply because of the image of a sun displayed on the cover of the first edition. Their importance in the development of the string quartet genre, however, is paramount.

It was initially puzzling why the PHOENIX program should open with Haydn’s Flute Quartet Op.5 No.2 in G-major. The release of Haydn’s six opus 5 quartets,  by the Amsterdam-based publisher J. J. Hummel in 1767 or 1768, was probably carried out behind Haydn’s back and the authorship of a number of the quartets in this set has been questioned, some of the works passed off under Haydn’s name in order to increase sales. Trio No.2, however, is thought to be authentic. The PHOENIX artists’ playing of it addressed each gesture, their dynamic contrasts and expressive approach evocative of Haydn’s large palette of instrumental colour and textures and typical of the composer’s genial, sunny and sometimes droll personality, as in the short, bouncy, separated opening phrases of the Presto movement. Notable were some appealing flute ornamentation in the Adagio and a fine viola solo (Rachel Ringelstein) in the Minuetto movement. This quartet, as it turns out, was performed by PHOENIX as a preamble to the three “Sun” quartets that followed.

Appearing a mere five years after the Op.5 works, Joseph Haydn’s opus 20 quartets are arguably Haydn’s first quartet masterpieces. These superb works may be seen as both experimental and ground-breaking, representing an unprecedented flowering of Haydn’s string quartet-writing: they are different in that they are the first quartets to make the fullest use of four completely independent voices, establishing a standard of artistic excellence to which every other subsequent composer of quartets has paid homage. Being in the employ of Count Esterhazy on his estate was opportune for this major step. Haydn, completely secluded from the world, wrote: “Nobody was nearby who could distract me or confuse me about myself; in this way I became original.” The PHOENIX artists’ playing of Op.20 Quartets 2, 5 and 4 was indeed a celebration of Haydn’s “new-found freedom”, as they gave conviction to the intensely individual roles woven throughout. In the Adagio movement of No.2 in C-major, Herzog’s hauntingly beautiful ‘cello solo, Epstein’s almost unaccompanied flute solos and some robust ensemble “comments” create a kind of Baroque-style drama. Or are we indeed experiencing a  concerto when presented with a flute cadenza? Probably the most remarkable aspect of the Op.20 quartets is their engagement in counterpoint, immediately discernible in No.2’s opening movement. This quartet and No. 5, which followed, both have final movements cast as elaborate fugues; these were played at the Ein Kerem concert with such committed personal expression on the part of all the players that I found myself choosing to focus on one player at a time.

For the sake of the flute, the PHOENIX members performed Op.20 No.5 in a transposed version from F-minor to the scale of G-minor. It is a work of sophistication and virtuosity, a large, rich (at times, almost orchestral) canvas. In the opening Moderato, the flute, clearly (as for most of the quartet) the "soloist", opens with a strangely subdued, plangent melody, full of angular chromatic intervals, setting a level of textural complexity that rarely ceases throughout the quartet. It's a kind of theme and variations, with a very simple and almost unchanging rhythm for the lower three instruments, but featuring ever more elaborate figuration for the flute. In their playing of the Adagio movement, also somewhat a theme and variations set in a major key, the artists struck a delicate balance between the inner tension of its basic Siciliano character and the slow tempo needed in order to accommodate all the elaborate figuration engaged in by the flute as the movement progressed. In the quartet’s combination of evident seriousness and its general restraint (much of the music is marked to be played "piano") the players gave expression to its sustained intensity.

In their playing of Quartet No.4 in D-major of Op.20, the PHOENIX artists draw together many of the strings of what Opus 20 represents as they plumb Haydn’s variety of moods and developing dramatic language with sharp insight, here presenting his integration of seemingly disparate ideas - serenades with folksong and gypsy music. In the Affettuoso movement, a theme and variations, with its profusion of duets and solos and shadowy wanderings from minor to major, the quartet highlighted the poignancy of Haydn’s writing in articulate delicacy and understatement. It was only in the Minuetto alla Zingarese that I felt the lack of a first violin timbre for its bucolic, extroverted gypsy melody.

The string-players, performing on 18th century instruments with gut strings with historic bows and Epstein playing an original Classical flute built in 1780, produced a natural sense of balance, a soundscape in which Haydn’s wealth of ideas pervaded the quartet texture at every opportunity. For the acoustic of the Eden-Tamir Center, there were moments where the strings sounded a fraction too powerful for the flute. Joining Moshe Aron Epstein's outstanding playing, Ya'akov Rubinstein, no longer a new face on the early music scene, gave a performance of fine musicality. Violist Rachel Ringelstein's splendid interpretation of each melodic line never fails to impress   As to the ‘cello’s newborn role in the chamber music genre, Myrna Herzog enticed a warm-toned stream of finely shaped sound from the ‘cello, expressive but always within the line and contour of good taste. With Haydn’s music characterised by directness and accessibility to the listener, it nevertheless presents a myriad of challenges to the performer. The PHOENIX players offered the audience the pleasure of listening to playing that is committed to musicianship of the highest order.

Myrna Herzog,Ya'akov Rubinstein,Rachel Ringelstein,Moshe Aron Epstein (photo:Arthur Herzog)

1 comment:

Shirley B. said...

Such intrigue and drama behind the piece! They should have you give the background information before the concert; I am sure the audiences would love that! So sorry that we missed the concert. Always like the PHOENIX. Thank you for the review, Pamela!