EIF 2015 review: Modigliani Quartet

First published in The Herald on 12 August, 2015

Maybe it was nerves, maybe it was just too early in the morning. This recital by France’s Quatuor Modigliani took time to settle, but when it did — after the interval with Dohnanyi’s gorgeously rich-hued Third String Quartet — the playing was focused, ballsy and eloquent. Second violinist Loic Rio snapped a string in the finale, but if anything the group’s playing was at its most free and charismatic when they trooped back on to complete the piece, pressure dissipated, string mended and (presumably) coffee kicked in.

Composed in Budapest in the mid-1920s, the Dohnanyi is a gem. The outer movements are gutsy and fresh, propelled by off-kilter rhythmic energy and spirited wit. The slow movement spins urgent variations around a sweetly wistful chorale theme in which the glossy, elastic Modigliani sound was breathtaking — it’s worth listening back to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast for those chords alone.

That sound was exactly what was needed but never quite emerged before the interval. Ravel’s String Quartet is near-obligatory repertoire for any young Parisian quartet aiming to strut its pedigree at a major festival debut, but this performance wasn’t the Modiglianis’ best (they have recorded the work along with the Debussy and Saint-Saens quartets; they can do it justice). The first movement was oddly timid and the pizzicato second movement grew tense as it came unstuck once too often. The concert opened with Beethoven’s Quartet in C Minor Op 18 no 4, which showed off the beefy if rough-hewn playing of first violinist Philippe Bernhard but needed more intensity from inner parts to really synthesise.