Arts concert review

A gut feeling

Quatuor Mosaïques brings out richness in ‘Haydn’ and ‘Sun’ Quartets

8315 quatuor mosaiques
Members of Quatuor Mosaïques display their instruments.
Wolfgang Krautzer

Quatuor Mosaïques
Celebrity Series of Boston
NEC's Jordan Hall
Oct. 14, 2017

Jordan Hall at the New England Conservatory hummed with anticipation. Soon, the empty stage, with a beautiful, defunct organ for backdrop, would be graced by the presence of the most well-known and widely praised period-instrument quartet of the day. Quatuor Mosaïques, an Austrian ensemble that came together 30 years ago, distinguishes itself with its singular use of gut-stringed instruments, specializing in the music of the 18th century. The quartet performed as part of the Celebrity Series of Boston.

In last Saturday evening’s performance, the quartet opened with Mozart’s Quartet in B-flat Major, K.458. The open intervals and compound meter-rhythms typical of the sub-genre “la chasse,” making it clear why the piece is popularly called “The Hunt.” The musicians start off the piece with playful trills and a strident forte. In the bittersweet adagio, the lower voices do not simply support the first violin, but embellish upon its motifs and recall the galloping patterns of the first movement. The staccato eighth notes in the final movement are executed crisply and are wedded seamlessly to the slurred motives, highlighting the contrasting elements of the piece.

After the intermission, we were treated to Haydn’s Quartet in C Major, Opus 20, No. 2, one of the “Sun” Quartets. Musical commentary often presents Haydn as an appetizer or a warm-up for the main piece of the performance. This was not the case in Quatuor Mosaïques’ performance. It was the Haydn, rather than the Mozart, that had the audience voicing their adulation. We got what we expected from the Mozart quartets — graceful melody, refinement, clean execution. But it was as if I were hearing Haydn for the first time. They played his “Sun” Quartets with such playful articulation and tasteful rubato, without the saw-like tension that is sometimes felt from steel strings. The Quartet performed the suspensions and sweet harmonies of the sunny first movement as naturally as the intense unison recitative of the more brooding second movement. The four-voice fugue finale spotlighted the musicians’ technical virtuosity.

The gut strings on the instruments used by Quatuor Mosaïques produce a softer, warmer sound than the steel strings modern audiences have become accustomed to hearing. It is the difference between a room lit by an incandescent bulb and one illuminated by candlelight. Additionally, their period instruments are characterized by classical bows, which are shorter than their modern counterparts, and they are strung with less tension.

The pairing of Mozart and Haydn in a program is a natural choice. The two composers admired each other’s talents greatly, so much so that Mozart dedicated a collection of pieces known as the “Haydn” Quartets to his colleague — an honor usually reserved for aristocratic patrons who had commissioned the piece or who were considering sponsorship. K.458 and K.421 are two of these “Haydn” Quartets. The two composers regularly had chamber music reading sessions and performed together in quartets and quintets; they had a unique awareness among their contemporaries for the importance of synergy and camaraderie in a quartet, viewing each player as key to the progression of the piece.

After the ovation the quartet received, Quatuor Mosaïques could not have left the stage without giving the audience another taste of their talent and rounded off the evening with an exquisite rendition of the Andante of Haydn’s Op. 33, No. 6 Quartet.

In an interview with The Boston Musical Intelligencer, the quartet explains the origin of their name and simultaneously gives insight into their philosophy in interpreting music: “If you look at [the mosaics] from a close distance, you can see all the fine details like the beauty of the stone itself. From the first gallery, one experiences more of the shapes, and even further up you get the whole picture of the story within the architecture. In the same way, we can perceive music from different distances physically and mentally, thinking about articulation, phrasing, and overall architecture.” I am grateful that Quatuor Mosaïques superb performance allowed me to see some of the finer details.