The French string quartet Quatuor Diotima offered a vivacious performance on Friday night at Mandel Hall in Hyde Park. An ensemble-in-residence at University of Chicago, this was Diotima’s Chicago premier; earlier visits had been cancelled due to COVID-19. The program was a nice mixture of modern and classical masterpieces. Except for a few challenges in the second half, Diotima played well.
The first half was devoted to 20th century Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, whose two quartets on Friday’s program displayed his mastery of the string quartet medium. These works expanded the sonority and aural possibilities of stringed instruments playing together.
Diotima opened with Quartet No 3, Sz. 85, the shortest of Bartok’s quartets. While brief, its four parts pack a punch and provide great variety of texture and sound. Diotima showed amazing ensemble prowess and excellent technique. Yun-Peng Zhao on first violin, Léo Marillier on second violin, Franck Chevalier on viola, and Pierre Morlet on cello fit together seamlessly. They carefully reproduced the many sounds Bartok requested. Most fascinating was when they played their bows upside down while their hands raced back and forth on the finger board.
Intonation is always important, even for a work that is largely free of traditional tonality. Whenever Diotima converged on a major chord, their tonal aura was perfect. Also, the rapid transitions between sections were smooth and dynamic variation excellent. The bowing was sharp and crisp throughout.
The second work on the program—Quartet No. 5, Sz. 102—is very different from the first. Aside from being twice as long, it’s also far more tonal. Diotima really shone here, from the precise rhythms of the rapid, opening chords to smooth transitions to quieter moments. One highlight was the second movement, a slow Adagio molto, which opens with quiet trills followed by the cello offering a melody while the other instruments provided short phrases. Eventually the players came together with a series of mellow chords that created an aura as soothing and relaxing as a gentle massage.
The biggest highlight was the Finale: Allegro vivace, which has a rapid, pulsating feel that one might find in a Hollywood movie car chase. It even had what sounded like a stop at a railroad crossing. The performance was exhilarating, absolutely engrossing. I do not recall ever hearing Bartok played so well.
The second half of the program was devoted to one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet in a-minor, Op. 132. For over 35 years, Beethoven revolutionized classical music. At the end of his life, he produced five towering string quartets that went even further. These works bear little similarity to the quartet form Beethoven inherited from Josef Haydn. Three of them have more than the usual four movements, with the a-minor quartet having five. Beethoven completed the process of taking the string quartet to a completely new plane, exploring different forms and unusual harmonies.
Like the Op. 130 and Op. 131 quartets, the a-minor quartet is thematically structured around the last four notes of the harmonic minor scale. These notes are the basis of the chords that open the work, and Diotima offered the right amount of tension and apprehension. Unfortunately, it ended with a melodic flourish from first violinist Zhao that was rushed and imprecise, which also occurred elsewhere in the movement. Another problem was that his instrument was occasionally lost in the mix.
Later, Zhao’s facial expression revealed unhappiness with the way he ended a dramatic melodic run in the middle of the second movement, when the four-note motif returned. During the rest immediately afterward, he surreptitiously adjusted the tuning of his E string while the other instruments were playing. Even with this and additional small adjustments after the movement, the ensemble’s intonation throughout was better than fine. Everything sang and gelled just as it should. These imperfections were only small wrinkles in an otherwise smooth performance of this piece.
Every blemish disappeared when the work’s middle movement started. While Beethoven was writing this quartet in 1825, he was dealing with a major intestinal illness. Joy at his recovery resulted in one of the finest pieces of meditation music one can find, as well as the longest instrumental movement in his canon. Beethoven added the following words to the manuscript: “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydianschen Tonart” (“Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian mode”). It totally meets that description.
One hallmark of late Beethoven is the use of baroque counterpoint and fugues that had been out of fashion for 75 years. The Heiliger Dankesang goes back even further to the Lydian mode, a tonality from medieval church music several centuries previously. This tonality is essentially F-major, with the B-flat being made B natural. With the exception of the D-major sections that break things up, Beethoven only deviates from the Lydian mode’s seven notes a couple of times near the end.
Friday night’s performance of the Heiliger Dankesang and the final two movements was outstanding. Diotima provided all the feelings, intensity, and passion this music requires. No music requires greater ensemble cohesion to be effective, and Diotima ably provided it.
Quatuor Diotima performed with the University Symphony Orchestra on Saturday night, and their ensemble in residence will continue later in the season. For more information, visit the Chicago Presents website.