Last night in Herbst Theatre, Chamber Music San Francisco presented the San Francisco premiere of Quatuor Danel, a Brussels-based string quartet, whose members are Marc Danel, the leader after whom the group is named, second violinist Gilles Millet, violist Vlad Bogdanas, and cellist Yovan Markovitch. The ensemble currently holds two residencies, one at the University of Manchester (since 2005) and the other (as of October of last year) at the TivoliVredenburg music complex in Utrecht. Their extensive touring is gradually being matched by an impressive recorded legacy, which already includes the first recording ever made of all seventeen of the string quartets composed by Mieczysław Weinberg. Their current extended recording project involves the late quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven.
Both Weinberg and Beethoven were represented on last night’s program. However, the French-Belgian side of the group’s underlying culture served as the basis for the opening selection, Claude Debussy’s Opus 10, his only string quartet, which he composed in 1893. From the very opening gesture, it was clear that this ensemble was driven by an intense command of energy. Debussy’s tempo marking for his first movement is Animé et très décidé (animated and very decisive); and Danel was committed to every letter of that instruction.
Without ever short-changing any fundamental matters of pitch, intonation, and rhythm, Danel almost immediately exposed just how lame more “polite” accounts of this quartet can be. Whether the issue was counterpoint, bowing technique, or even overall structure, Debussy was as decisive in taking his own personal approach to the nature of the string quartet as his marking for the opening tempo was. Through Danel’s interpretation, one could appreciate a radical side to Debussy’s aesthetic that is often overlooked in his more popular compositions. The result was almost shockingly harsh, startling but not offending, leaving most of the audience with the impression that they were hearing his music for the first time, no matter the number of past encounters with recitals and recordings.
That rhetorical stance also proved to serve the Beethoven selection, Opus 130 in B-flat major, just as well. This was Beethoven’s major venture into an extended number of distinct movements; and the venture was even bolder when the quartet concluded with the “Große Fuge,” whose scope was so ambitious that Beethoven finally gave in to his publisher, composing a shorter final movement (the last substantial composition before the composer’s death) and publishing the fugue separately as Opus 133.
However, even with that modification for the conclusion, Opus 130 is a panorama of diverse styles, rhetorics, and durational scales. Furthermore, its shifts across that diversity are often abrupt, sometimes shockingly so; and what made Danel’s approach so compelling was the group’s ability to negotiate those shifts without ever making them sound awkward or unnatural. Thus, while this quartet often labors under interpretations that begin to wear on the listener’s patience long before the final movement, this was an account that left that same listener on the edge of his/her seat, eager to learn what would next ensue.
The Weinberg selection was the Opus 27 quartet in B-flat major. Composed in 1945, this was the fifth of the seventeen quartets. Weinberg’s friendship with Dmitri Shostakovich coincided with the coming of World War II to the Soviet Union. While Weinberg had initially been evacuated to Tashkent, Shostakovich persuaded him to move to Moscow. Weinberg would have been aware of the accumulating rhetoric of war-weariness that was building up in Shostakovich’s symphonies at that time; and he probably had also encountered Sergei Prokofiev’s “war” sonatas for piano.
However, the Opus 27 quartet has the same sort of lightness of spirit that emerged in Shostakovich’s ninth symphony. Each of its five movements is relatively short and might be taken as an individual character sketch. In at least two cases that character may have been specific. The second Humoreska movement can easily be taken as a warped reflection on the seventh, and most popular, of the eight humoresques that Antonín Dvořák composed for solo piano as his Opus 101, while the following Scherzo is an almost unmistakable nod to Shostakovich.
Danel’s interpretation seemed to appreciate this approach and endowed each movement with its own personality type. (They had no trouble evoking Shostakovich’s spirit.) This was probably a “first contact” experience for much of the audience; and Danel could not have provided a better introduction. One could appreciate the uniqueness of Weinberg’s own voice while acknowledging his previously neglected status as a Polish-born Russian composer. Last night’s performance may well have encouraged some to seek out the Danel recording of the complete set of Weinberg quartets.
The encore selection was a “Notturno” movement, apparently from a string quartet by Jacques Ibert. Details have been hard to find. The music provided a quiet follow-up to the joyous Finale movement of Beethoven’s Opus 130. It also allowed for a return to those Franco-Belgian roots that shape this group’s personality and were most evident in their approach to Debussy. Most importantly, it provided an elegant conclusion to the ensemble’s visit, leaving many of us wondering when this ensemble will return.