Never miss a Quatuor Molinari concert. It might end up being a Prix Opus-winning event. Actually, I had a few reasons turn up at the Conservatoire on the final evening of January. One was an opportunity to hear Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 4 – probably the first in Montreal since this enterprising ensemble played a Schoenberg cycle in 2012.
One can understand why the Fourth is a less-than-frequent flyer on the standard chamber circuit. Made of 12 tones and multiple time signatures, it poses considerable technical and intellectual challenges, which the Molinaris managed adroitly in this taut reading. The rigour of the music was communicated strongly at the start. Secondary material was, properly, restrained in its lyricism.
After the scherzo-like second movement, the Largo offered welcome relief, with its clear unison opening and ad libitum solos for first violin, spun out songfully by Olga Ranzenhofer. The martial finale had a smart rhythm to it. Second violin Antoine Bareil, armed with a Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume instrument on loan from Canimex, produced a slightly darker tone than Ranzenhofer – a subtle distinction that is by no means unwelcome in dense and intricate textures.
The program was styled as a tribute to Elizabeth Sprague-Coolidge, the American benefactress who commissioned this quartet, among others. It was also a night to honour our own Phyllis Lambert, who made possible R. Murray Schafer’s String Quartet No. 12, which the Molinaris premiered in 2012.
Their mastery of the score was evident. Varying interludes of humour and lyricism were precisely captured and a pizzicato sequence demonstrated good timing and tuning. As often with Schafer, the form (over 15 minutes) was essentially intuitive, but one could not think of how it could be another way. Lambert was present in the audience, sequestered in the upper level.
The opening item was Prokofiev’s Quartet No. 1 of 1930, another Sprague-Coolidge commission, but one that never really caught on. Nor on this occasion. Perhaps expectations from Prokofiev run higher than what this tuneful but rather rambling three-movement piece delivers. Still, the passages bringing together viola Frédéric Lambert and cello Pierre-Alain Bouvrette were well balanced, and there were nostalgic touches in the slow movement, which doubles, inadequately, as a finale.
Did it all add up to an Opus-class Concert de l’année? Well, sometimes a good concert is good enough!