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BEMF at the Morgan
Tuesday, January 21, 2014, 7:30 p.m.
London Haydn Quartet with Eric Hoeprich, basset clarinet
Haydn, Quartet in B flat, Op. 50, No. 1
Beethoven, Quartet in D, Op. 18, No. 3
Mozart, Quintet in A, KV. 581
A heavy snowfall, bitter winds, and icy sidewalks failed to deter an enthusiastic audience from nearly filling the Morgan Library’s Gilder Lehrman Hall on January 21, when the Boston Early Music Society continued their New York series with a concert by the London Haydn Quartet with Eric Hoeprich, the great historically informed clarinettist and instrument-maker, who were offering a program of Haydn, Beethoven, and Mozart. The bare white basement space that serves as the lobby of the hall is hardly the most attractive part of one of New York’s most elegant institutions, but its heating was welcome enough, and once one enters the auditorium, one can enjoy some warmth of design and acoustics as well.
The London Haydn Quartet was founded in 2000 by first violinist Catherine Manson, “out of a passion for Haydn’s string quartets,” a sentiment I find entirely sympathetic. Since then, Ms. Manson, second violinist Michael Gurevich, violist James Boyd, and cellist Jonathan Manson, playing on gut strings with classical bows, have explored the music of Mozart and Beethoven, as well as our beloved Haydn. Their long-term collaboration with Eric Hoeprich has also led them to play and record Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet, as well as Mozart’s, which we heard in this concert. Most welcome is their ongoing Haydn recording project for the Hyperion label, which now includes Op. 9, 17, 20, and 33. On their current North American tour, Jonathan Manson chose to remain at home, and he was most happily replaced by Pierre Doumenge, a versatile London-based musician who is comfortable playing the cello both in period and modern configurations. In spite of that, I was mildly surprised to see his instrument supported by a pin! What we hear is what counts, and his balance of sensitivity, precision, and energy proved a valuable contribution to the ensemble.
The evening began with Haydn, the first of his Opus 50 set in B Flat Major. Catherine Manson began her excellent, all too brief, program note with the story of King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia’s gift to Haydn of a gold ring in recognition of the composer’s gift of the scores of his “Paris” symphonies. Haydn’s response was to dedicate his six Op. 50 quartets to the Prussian King in 1786. While Manson immediately gets into the daring, ambiguous tonality of the first movement’s opening, especially in regard to the repeated B Flats played by the cello alone, which persist in refusing to establish the movement’s key. We hear the phrase again on other, unrelated notes, for example C. Haydn honored his patron with music worthy of his musical sophistication and which Friedrich Wilhelm surely appreciated. The slow movement, on the other hand, could have sat comfortably in one of the “London” symphonies, an indication of the direction Haydn’s mind was headed. The Menuetto: poco Allegretto, invites us to expect a canonic relationship among the parts, but it turns out to be a bit simpler and subtler than that. Haydn brings back the brilliant counterpoint of the first movement in his finale, which, while fundamentally quartet-like in its writing, suggests the finales of the great symphonies that were to come. The perfect intonation and fine articulation of the players, as well as their warm, resinous tone, did full justice to all we cherish in Haydn’s string quartets. Their tempo in the final Vivace was extremely animated—a true vivace, and brilliantly executed, but might the counterpoint benefit from a little more breathing room? Op. 50 follows Op. 33, with only a single quartet, Op. 42, between them—a welcome sign that the Hyperion recording project moves forward.
Like Haydn’s, Beethoven’s D Major Quartet opens with a simple but ambiguous motif played by a single instrument, but in this case rather different in context and function. Ms. Manson explains it so well that I can do no better than to quote her: “However, where Haydn had the lowest instrument repeating one note eight times, Beethoven has the highest instrument play two notes that introduce the interval from which the whole work finds its source. The choice of the ascending minor seventh as a starting point is a stroke of genius. The conjunction of the question posed by this ambiguous interval together with the radiance of the ascending scale motif in the bass line is something that leaves its impression on us throughout the piece.” The minor seventh makes itself felt especially in the Andante, which is ambitious in its harmonic development and invention, pointing the way to Beethoven’s great slow movements of his middle and late years. Apart from the seriousness of this Andante, the quartet leans towards a high-spirited grace that suggests the social tone of Prince Lobkowitz’s salon, while Haydn’s reflects the passions of King Friedrich, a musical intellectual, if an amateur, of intelligence and learning.
The Londoners faced the score directly, with a classical steady pulse, exceptionally clean attacks and articulation. They let the social, lyrical side of the music have its way, but with discipline. They took the slow movement as a proper andante, not dragging, but freely letting themselves enter into the more reflective corners of the movement. The scherzo was muscular and full of energy, and they made no bones about taking the final Presto at a ripping pace, which they were able to do without sacrificing ensemble, intonation, or articulation. This conclusion belongs to a virtuoso performance, but the chief ideas that remained with me were the antithetical Mozartian Hoffähigkeit and wild energy which gave Beethoven the ability to turn Haydn’s model in his own direction.
Mozart’s glorious Clarinet Quintet in A Major filled the second half of the program. That was certainly what we all needed on that miserable night. As I mentioned, Eric Hoeprich has played with the London Haydn Quartet on a regular basis in concert halls and the recording studio (for Glossa in this case). As an instrument builder (pretty much for his own research and use), the author of an historical monograph on the clarinet, and a virtuoso player, Hoeprich can enjoy a relationship to his instrument that is both encyclopaedic and profound. He came to the Quintet with his own understanding of Mozart’s writing, his knowledge of the peculiar instrument Mozart wrote for, and his own special understanding of the history of his instrument…and that old scoundrel, Anton Stadler. In this performance he played his own reconstruction of the basset clarinet, a crooked instrument with a deeper chalumeau register, which Stadler designed for his own use. In 1996, an American musicologist, Pamela Poulin, published a discovery she made on a visit to Riga, where Stadler played on tour. A concert program preserved there contains an illustration of Stadler’s basset clarinet, and further information she gathered makes it possible to make a more accurate reconstruction of the instrument for which Mozart wrote his Clarinet Concerto and the Quintet. Hoeprich has worked on this before Poulin’s discovery and has arrived at convincing results, but now he and other period builders have more to go by. Andrew Miller and I have both written on the subject in these pages: AM/MJM.
Modern clarinets are, like all musical instruments of any period, a compromise. Designed to be played at higher tunings than those current in Mozart’s time, they incorporate some of the plummy, “mellow” sound of the chalumeau register into most of their gamut, which is relatively uniform, although the chalumeau retains its characteristic throaty quality. Hoeprich’s reconstruction of Stadler’s monster has a clear, open sound in its middle and upper registers, and a rich, cello-like chalumeau. In order to exploit the instrument, Hoeprich had to reconstruct what was lost when the score was transcribed for conventional clarinet, which he doesn’t consider an especially stiff challenge. After all, Mozart wrote the music in a particular key, and the line can only go downwards.
The approach Mr. Hoeprich and the LHQ was more varied and energetic than most of us are accustomed to with modern instruments and players. The sound of his basset clarinet, although tuned lower, is open and bright, and it invites more energetic playing and sharp attacks. Partly because a certain languidity has crept into twentieth century performance style, and partly because of the uniform sound of a modern clarinet, we are accustomed to an open-ended lyricism in this piece, whereas, it is clear that a varied, dramatic style, related to male rhetoric (in a higher register!) was closer to Mozart’s and Stadler’s temperament.
And this is what we heard in the warm, immediate acoustics of the Morgan’s excellent hall. The Londoners’ strings supported the full range of the basset clarinet’s expression, while strong phrasing, accents, and rhythm made the work’s backbone apparent. A veil was lifted.