The Modigliani Quartet is well-suited to Haydn’s classically structured music; importantly, the musicians do not take liberties with tempo yet the deeply-felt elements of his compositions are expounded expressively without hindering forward progress. A touching example of this was to be found in the reading of the second-movement Allegretto of Opus 54/1. Here a mysterious passage in firm rhythm takes the listener as on a walk through a dark wood until the resolution into a major key suggests emergence into a sunlit clearing. Never a hint of sentimentality here and the straightforward rendering of this sequence made it exceptionally beautiful. Another characteristic of this group is clear definition of inner parts. In composing the Opus 54 set Haydn was not relying on the tradition of the first-violin asserting every melody and the Modigliani members consistently clarified each individual contribution. The Minuet was suitably moderate in pace and the drama of the outer movements was underlined.
The so-called ‘Rider’ Quartet is even more dramatic and the equestrian nature of the brilliant Finale was evoked by strongly stressed rhythms. Most memorable was the interpretation of Largo assai a description honoured by the daringly slow tempo that was adopted. Hushed playing and rich phrasing were enhanced by the pulse of the music being held firmly.
A characteristic of the players’ style being the clear assertion of inner parts, Brahms’s very different C-minor Quartet benefitted greatly. Haydn delights us by his imaginative use of Classical form, typically expounding at least two themes, rounding them off and repeating them before launching into their development. Brahms uses a more-complex version of this comfortably familiar structure, expounding a theme and immediately developing it until it becomes evident that a new theme has infiltrated and is also in the course of being developed. This means that there is considerable fullness of texture which, in performance, the Modigliani musicians clarify admirably. The severe multi-themed opening movement is followed by a calm ‘Romanze’ where once again the ability to relieve tension by soft response was a feature. This music is too serious to merit a Scherzo and instead Brahms provides a gentle intermezzo which includes what might be described as a Trio, given here with elegant lightness. The Finale is dense in feel; again no sooner are ideas created than their development begins, but importantly, this performance retained the required tension.
After Brahms in complex mood the Modigliani players found an ideal encore to conclude the thought-provoking programme and presented Puccini’s Crisantemi (Chrysanthemums). The score is marked Andante mesto but this elegant reading did not stress the implied sadness, rather it concluded the evening with a feeling of serenity.