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The Auryn Quartet Concert Report

Review of the concert by Joan Champie, followed by the program notes:

Chamber Music of Yellow Springs opened its 2016-2017 season on Sunday evening, October 9, with a memorable performance by the Auryn String Quartet.

Formed in 1981, the Auryn is notable for its individuality, interpretive mastery, and intensity of expression.  The group has performed in most of the major musical centers of the world and regularly tours in North America, having appeared at Lincoln Center’s Tully Hall and at the Frick collection, and in Chicago, Quebec City, Montreal, Vancouver, and many other venues.  It is a strong champion of contemporary music and has premiered a number of works.  Members of the Auryn Quartet include Matthias Lingenfelder and Jens Oppermann, violin; Stewart Eaton, viola; and Andres Arndt, cello.

Haydn’s String Quartet in G Major, Op. 77, no. 1, began the program with a brilliant chord followed by a filigree of delicate passage work.  This dramatic contrast was repeated several times before development into a longer, melodic section.  Immediately apparent in the group was the total coordination and excellent ensemble playing, plus the beautifully balanced quality of all four instruments.  The Allegro movement was succeeded by an Adagio with a pulsing rhythm under the violin melody which became bright and golden, or mellow and subdued.  The Menuetto movement was lively from the outset, rather than the traditional sedate dance, with its crisp tempo and energetic pace.  All members blended and balanced each other for a delightful romp.  The finale, a Presto, was memorable for its mischievous affect.

String Quartet No. 2, Op.17 by Bartok brought an entirely new experience for the listeners with its angular phrases and unexpected harmonies.  The initial Moderato had four individual lines twining and intersecting in complex ways.  This seemed like a kaleidoscope of tone colors with the separate parts merging and diverging.  This intricacy was fascinating and fresh to the ears.  The second movement Allegro molto capriccioso began with a burst of energy, with repetitive rapid eighth notes adding momentum.  Pizzicato passages for each instrument provided punctuation in contrast to the intricate murmuring of softly bowed passages.  The concluding Lento was quiet and introspective, with descending passages for each instrument amid an impression of choral writing.  This sombre quality continued until the ending with two pizzicato notes played by viola and cello alone.

Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet brought new colors and harmonies to the evening’s program.  In the initial Danse movement a prolonged note held by the viola was then joined by the violin playing a repetitious tune with the cello providing a drum-like rhythm.  The music was angular and asymmetric, with brief moments of silences expanding the impact.  Sometimes the four instruments joined in coordinated passages, and other times there were separate parts creating the whole.  At all times the Quartet played with impeccable finesse, lovely tone, and excellent ensemble.

The String Quartet in C Major, K 465, by Mozart concluded the evening with a calmer, more predictable but still satisfying group of movements.  The opening Adagio emerged from a soft, sustained cello note and developed into a sprightly Allegro with some traditional duet passages for the two violins.  A singing and graceful Cantabile followed, and the Minuetto was melodically and dynamically unique.  The work concluded with another light and charming Allegro.  In many ways, this quartet showed a maturing Mozart able to incorporate some (for him) unusual harmonies.

This fine concert presented an ideal balance between classical and contemporary compositions.  The Auryn Quartet played with warmth, precision, and total congruence among the players: an evening to cherish.

Charles Larkowski presented the pre-concert lecture, giving highlights and significant melodies from each composition to enhance the audience’s awareness and enjoyment.

Joseph Haydn, String Quartet in G Major, op. 77, No. 1

At the midpoint of his career as a composer Joseph Haydn realized how lucrative the market for his works could be. He began publishing his compositions throughout Europe and, while doing so, would sometimes practice some modest self-promotion. One famous instance of this aggrandizement was his touting his Opus 33 collection of string quartets, published in 1781, for their “new and special manner.” Haydn’s claim is controversial, and critics and historians still debate just how “new and special” these quartets actually were.

Nevertheless, the broader implication, that Haydn was an innovative composer, is not controversial. Even in his own time he was highly regarded for the originality of his work, what the eighteenth-century British composer John Marsh called Haydn’s “wonderful contrivance” and his “variety and eccentricity in modulation.” When asked by a friend to explain the source of this novelty he pointed to the security of his position at the Esterhazy court, and the approval of his master.  In that atmosphere of security and approbation Haydn could be, as he put it, “as bold as I pleased. I was cut off from the world; there was no one to confuse or torment me, and I was forced to become original.”

Unfortunately, novelty, or even sophisticated originality, has a short lease. Haydn had been successfully publishing string quartets throughout the 1790s, and always in sets of six. But when the opus 77 set was published it contained only two quartets. Several explanations for this light set of quartets have been proposed, but Haydn scholar H. C. Robbins Landon most convincingly argues that Haydn saw his own star fade in the light of Ludwig van Beethoven’s growing importance as composer in this genre. Beethoven’s opus 18 set of quartets had just been published with a considerable impact on the sophisticated musical audiences of the day. Haydn felt he could no longer compete in that genre and stepped away from it, though it is worth noting that—notwithstanding Haydn’s judgement of either Beethoven’s or his own quartets—the opus 77 quartets are now considered among the finest works that Haydn wrote in the genre.

Like most string quartets from the eighteenth century, opus 77, no. 1 is in four movements. The first movement follows the standard sonata-allegro form: the first theme is march-like, while the second is more gracefully melodic. The second movement is a slow Adagio, written in an intensely lyrical style. The third movement is in minuet-trio form. While the minuet had been around since the 17th century as the exemplary form of courtly dance—and it still retained some of those royal associations for audiences of his day—Haydn completely stripped away any elements that implied his minuet was a dance, instead writing a quick, almost eccentric piece. The trio provides a vivid contrast with much stronger and regular rhythms.

The fourth movement is written in style that Robbins Landon says comes out of Eastern European folk music. Haydn writes accidentals and accents into the music that gives the tune great flair, and he adds to the tune’s interest by treating it contrapuntally. Haydn’s writing also affords the performers the chance to show off their skills, bringing the quartet to an exciting conclusion.

Béla Bartók, String Quartet No. 2

Bela Bartók did not originally intend to make a career as a composer. He first focused his considerable musical talents on the piano, and before he was twenty years old, he had begun a career as a performer touring Europe. Unfortunately, that career stalled when he was in his early twenties, and he returned to Budapest where he took up a teaching post at the Academy and devoted more time to composition. He had written a number of works already—works often influenced by late Romantics like Richard Strauss—but he also began writing pieces influenced by folk music.

That a musically educated composer like Bartók might adapt folk music for concert performance was not surprising. Throughout the nineteenth century such adaptations were a familiar musical staple in both concert venues and middle-class homes. But Bartók started to see that he might use folk music not simply as a source of catchy tunes or as a way to lend his music an exotic flair, but also to transform his own compositional work.

It was at this point in his life that Bartók met Zoltán Kodály, the Hungarian musician and ethnologist, and they resolved together to research the music of the various ethnic groups indigenous to Central Europe. Together they produced a significant body of research on Slovak, Bulgarian, and Serbian folk music, as well as the music of Hungary.

So important was this research that it even influenced Bartók’s romantic life. He wrote a piece for violin using folk material as way to court the young musician, Stefi Geyer, a skilled performer on the instrument. The relationship went nowhere, but Geyer nevertheless proved to be a kind of muse for Bartók, since folk materials became an element of all his subsequent compositions. Piano students, for example, might be familiar with his For Children, from 1910, a set of pieces based on folk tunes, or his series of progressive pieces, all collected under the title Mikrokosmos, which feature tunes written in folk modes and rhythms. But he also used folk rhythms and tunes in his concert works as well, as in the Second String Quartet.

The Second String Quartet was written under trying circumstances. Bartók began working on the piece in 1915, the year after World War I had broken out. He had been visiting France in 1914, and he returned to a Budapest under siege by the Russian army. Though he could have been recruited by the Hungarian army, his health was so bad that he was given permission to serve the nation instead by collecting folk songs. He wrote several adaptions of this folk material but he also found time to compose original works, including the Second String Quartet.

Bartók’s assimilation of folk material into his own work informs both the overall form of the Second String Quartet and its three movements. The first and third movements are both slow in tempo and brooding in mood. The first movement opens with a leaping motive, a figure repeated obsessively throughout the movement. The second movement, marked “allegro molto capriccio” takes as its main theme an Arabic tune Bartok had discovered in North Africa, and sets it to a drumming accompaniment. Although the tune is several times interrupted by music that is sometimes noisy and impetuous, sometimes angular and emotional, the forward motion dominates the mood of the movement.

By contrast the third movement is slow and brooding. We can easily hear this piece as another example of what Bartók would later call “night music,” a slow, sustained, and quiet music perhaps evoking the mysterious night in the mountains of Eastern Europe, where Bartók so often found inspiration for his work.

Igor Stravinsky, Three Pieces for String Quartet

Most concert goers will be familiar with Stravinsky as the composer of the masterful, modernist, and controversial ballet The Rite of Spring, famous for its riotous premier. How did the composer of such a shocking work later write such emotionally cool, neo-Classical masterpieces as the Symphony in Three Movements or the Symphony of Psalms? The explanation lies in the compositional work he undertook during World War I, when he exiled himself in Switzerland.

When he did turn to aAs early as 1914, Stravinsky began composing in a style that most obviously depended on smaller ensembles: pieces for voice and piano, or sui generis works like The Soldier’s Tale. He took this new approach partly in response to the austerity imposed on musicians and composers by the outbreak of the war. He knew he could no longer count on access to the huge and colorful orchestras like those he used in the Rite. But he also turned to smaller and less traditional ensembles because he was increasingly determined to express what he felt was the true spirit of Russia, a spirit that required he reject the forms and ensembles that came out of traditional European culture. He began writing songs using Russian texts, he began to use smaller, sometimes eccentric ensembles, like that of Les Noces, and the works he wrote no longer used European forms.

conventional ensemble, as in the Three Pieces for String Quartet, he treated the quartet completely unconventionally. During the 1920s, in a discussion of current string quartets, the critic George Dyson quoted a passage from the Three Pieces and wrote, “If this type of a passage has any proper place in the art of the string quartet, then the end is near.” More recently the scholar and critic Richard Taruskin, while not taking so dire a position as Dyson, nevertheless acknowledged that Stravinsky wrote the Three Pieces in a fashion “as thoroughly and willfully against the traditions of the medium as possible.”

Stravinsky’s anti-traditional approach to the quartet is obvious from the first moments of the first movement. A drone in the viola ushers in the first violin playing a short-winded, repetitious tune, accompanied by a drumming figure in the cello. The violin and the cello’s figures both repeat, but they are written so that the repetitions never line up. The effect is a musical “mobile,” stable figures revolving around each other, but never in sync.

The second movement is written in a style sometimes called “moment form,” a form in which radically distinguished blocks of musical material are juxtaposed side by side—or moment by moment—in a fashion that might evoke the startling and unmediated contrasts of Cubist paintings. In a 1915 article Ernest Ansermet, a conductor and close friend of Stravinsky, further described the piece as from the “region of the musically fantastic and bizarre,” though we leave that judgement to the listener.

The third movement is also written in moment form where the contrasting sections are distinguished chiefly by their general range, some being in the lower register and others higher. The tempo remains slow, the tunes and harmony almost static, and the piece brings the set to a mysterious conclusion.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, String Quarter, K. 465

Mozart was a prodigiously productive composer, famously tossing off such impressive works as his last three symphonies in about six weeks’ time. So we might be surprised to learn that his op. 10 set of quartets—the so-called “Haydn” quartets and the set that includes String Quartet, K.465—took almost three years to complete.

This apparently dilatory progress has, in part, a mundane explanation. Mozart was becoming more and more successful as a free-lance musician, constantly concertizing and providing private lessons in both keyboard performance and composition. But beyond these practical demands on his time, Mozart increasingly devoted himself to composition, and not just composition to meet an occasion, but composition that would stand as artistic work, as the work of a master composer. So, when he began op. 10, he set himself a high standard: that set by Haydn in his opus 33 quartets. In the dedication to op. 10, a dedication directed to Haydn, Mozart described the quartets as the “fruit of long and laborious study.” His claim is no mere brag. The manuscripts of the quartets are filled with the evidence—erasures, deletions, additions, emendations—of the careful, sometimes painful, attention he devoted to the work.

This painstaking labor in the composition of the op. 10 quartets arose from Mozart’s interest in Baroque music in general and Johann Sebastian Bach’s music in particular. This interest in Sebastian Bach’s music was a relatively new development. When Mozart had been a child he had esteemed above all other composers Bach’s son Johann Christian, and used that composer’s works as models for his student efforts in composition. He might have continued in the galant vein that was Johann Christian’s specialty had not one of Mozart’s patrons, Baron von Swieten, not introduced him to the baron’s extensive collection of Baroque music. The effect on Mozart was profound, an effect testified to in Mozart’s correspondence. Beginning in the late 1770s, Mozart referred more and more to Johann Christian as the “English Bach” (after Christian’s long time residence in London) while Sebastian became simply Bach.

Despite Mozart’s interest in developing a musical style that took into account Baroque practice, particularly the use of counterpoint, he might still have produced nothing but pastiche: credible imitations of an older style of composition, but nothing vital, and nothing with which he could develop as a composer. So, when he first encountered Haydn’s op. 33 quartets he must have heard them as a revelation. Haydn’s quartets were not just brilliant music; they were a way forward for Mozart, a way for him to incorporate serious Baroque counterpoint into tuneful galant compositions.

The “Haydn” Quartets quickly gained a positive reputation. When the publishing house Artaria first brought the quartets out, they touted, unsurprisingly, the set as “a masterpiece.” But Haydn himself was so moved by the quartets that he told Mozart’s father Leopold: “Before God, and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name.” The public seemed to share Haydn’s opinion; the quartets were brought out in several editions over the following years, and to this day remain an important part of the string quartet repertory.

Dennis Loranger, Lecturer in music and English, Wright State University