Two works by J.S. Bach and one each by Mendelssohn, the man who revived interest in Bach's music, and Glenn Gould, the singular interpreter of Bach's music, made up this program by the Minguet Quartett with pianist Andreas Klein. This concert, in fact a tribute to Gould, featured a rare performance of his String Quartet Op. 1. It was the fourth and next-to-last performance in the Asheville Chamber Music Series season and was held at Biltmore United Methodist Church. To compensate for the poor sight lines in the church, a video camera projected the performance on the wall above the platform.
The Minguet Quartett was founded in 1988 and is today made up of Ulrich Isfort and Annette Reisinger, violininsts, Aroa Sorin, violist, and Matthias Diener, cellist. The group takes its name from Pablo Minguet, an 18th-century Spanish philosopher who tried in his writings to make the fine arts accessible to the masses. The four musicians who perform internationally were trained as soloists by celebrated teachers at international conservatories and studied chamber music at the Folkwang Hochschule in Essen and the Cologne College of Music. They play on a set of instruments on permanent loan by the Stiftung Kunst und Kultur, Nord-Rhein-Westfalen.
German-born pianist Andreas Klein graduated from the Juilliard School and did further study with Claudio Arrau and Nikita Magaloff. He is an artist of international stature whose scholarly work includes a dissertation on the Chopin Études. He is especially known for his performances of the Mozart and Beethoven concerti.
The program opened with four excerpts from Bach's Art of the Fugue, S.1080, composed beginning ca.1742, at the end of Bach's life. Left incomplete at Bach's death, the commonly-accepted version of the work Bach called "Contrapunctus" comprises fourteen fugues and four canons centering on the key of D minor. Because Bach did not indicate instrumentation for the piece, scholars are left wondering whether he wrote it merely as an academic exercise, rather than a work meant for performance. The medium of string quartet works exceptionally well for each fugue, as one can hear clearly the inner workings of all the parts. The Minguet Quartett performed No. 1 (a fugue on the main theme), Nos. 3 and 4 (each employing an inversion of the main theme), and No. 9 (a double fugue) with clarity and restraint. Their distinct bowings and minimal use of vibrato resulted at times in a cohesive sound style reminiscent of a viol consort and achieved a remarkable result: the distinct voicing of each part without undue individual intrusion into the whole.
Next was Gould's String Quartet Op. 1 (his first and last opus), composed between 1953 and 1955. The work was published in 1956 and recorded first in 1960 to mixed reviews. Written in F minor and lasting 35 minutes, it consists of a single movement of five sections, many of them initiated by the cello followed by the viola. In fact, these two low voices are given unusual prominence in the whole piece, lending the quartet a pervasive dark and mysterious quality. The use of fugues, beginning in the cello and working upward through the ensemble, is a unifying technique. There are also sections featuring very thickly scored writing of intense dissonances and more transparent ones, displaying a sort of pan consonance. It is an arresting piece and the quartet gamely performed it with fire and gusto (especially the final section, brimming with agitated tremolos), but its complexity rendered it nearly incomprehensible on a single hearing. The audience's reaction was one of polite but muted applause.
After intermission came Mendelssohn's Capriccio in E Minor, one of four miscellaneous pieces written for string quartet over several years, assembled posthumously and published as Op. 81 in 1850. The piece begins with an Andante, which was warmly led by the lyrical phrases in the first violin. The short cadenza played by the same instrument served as a bridge to the lively Allegro fugato initiated by the second violin and then downward through the ensemble before returning to the first violin. Here there were many recognizable devices of more traditional quartet writing – tuneful themes, phrase exchanges, delineation of foreground and background planes of interest – all played with warmth and energy. From where I was sitting the balance within the ensemble was not the best, as the cello tended to be too dominant.
Capping the evening was what I considered to be the best performance. Andreas Klein joined the quartet for Bach's Piano Concerto, S.1052. Composed in three movements, this work, one of a set of six keyboard concertos, is scored for harpsichord, violin I and II, viola, and continuo (cello). Mendelssohn was known to have played this piece before 1832, but it wasn't published until 1838, as a result of the 19th century "Bach revival." It is a rare treat to hear the accompanying string parts played by a quartet rather than a chamber orchestra, and the Minguet Quartett was especially adept at performing Bach's intricate motivic language with lightning agility, unflagging energy, and grace. Klein is a stupendous pianist. His touch, which embraced a variety of articulations and dynamic levels, was always spot-on. The outer fast movements sparkled in its endless cascade of melodic figures, delivered about as fast as one dare play them; the inner quieter movement still retained its forward momentum while displaying Bach's lyrical and highly ornamental cantabile style. This was a stunning performance by any standard, and it brought the audience to its feet in a rousing ovation.