Modigliani Quartet

Philippe Bernhard, violin
Loïc Rio, violin
Laurent Marfaing, viola
François Kieffer, cello

Sunday, August 3, 2014, 4 pm


String Quartet No.1 in E Minor, Op.112 (1899)
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)

Molto allegro quasi presto
Molto adagio
Allegro non troppo

String Quartet No. 3 in A Major, Op. 41, No.3 (1842)
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Andante espressivo — Allegro molto moderato
Assai agitato — Un poco adagio — Tempo risoluto
Adagio molto
Finale: Allegro molto vivace — Quasi trio


String Quartet in F Major (1902)
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

Allegro moderato, Très doux
Assez vif. Très rythmé
Très lent
Vif et agité

next week

Friday, August 8, 8:30 pm

Steve Gorn, bansuri flute; Samarth Nagarkar, vocalist; Samir Chatterjee, tabla
A Twilight Concert of Indian Ragas

Saturday, August 9, 11 am

Young People’s Concert
Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf with the Amernet String Quartet and John Klibonoff, piano;
Alexander Platt, narrator

Saturday, August 9, 8 pm

Perry Beekman & Friends
Jazz at the Maverick
American Landscapes VII: The George Gershwin Songbook

Sunday, August 10, 4 pm

Amernet String Quartet; Jon Klibonoff, piano

American Landscapes VIII: Cherish the Émigrés
Music of Mahler, Dvořák, Schoenberg, and Korngold



Program Notes © 2014 by Miriam Villchur Berg*


The Modigliani Quartet, formed by four close friends while they were students at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris, celebrated ten years of playing together in 2013, and has already become one of the world’s top string quartets, playing in venues like Wigmore Hall, Carnegie Hall, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Brussels’ Bozar, Vienna’s Musikverein and Konzerthaus, Salzburg’s Mozarteum, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Cité de la Musique, the Library of Congress, Seattle’s Meany
Hall, Luxemburg’s Philharmonie, Zurich’s Tonhalle, Munich’s Herkulessaal, and La Fenice in Venice. The Süddeutsche Zeitung called the Modigliani "One of the best quartets in the world today.... Balance, transparency, symphonic comprehension, confident style—their performance reached a very high and inspiring level." The Seattle Times, for their part, called them "a fab foursome."

The Modigliani’s festival appearances have included Lucerne, Schwetzingen, Rheingau, Kissinger Sommer, Schleswig-Holstein, Gstaad Menuhin Festival, Schwarzenberg Schubertiade, Marlboro, and Lanaudière.

In upcoming seasons, the Modigliani Quartet will debut at Berlin’s Konzerthaus, Munich’s Prinzregenstheater, and Barcelona’s Auditori, and will return to many of the major venues where they have played. They are planning tours in Australia, Japan, China, and the United States.

The quartet has recorded for the Mirare label since 2008, and has released five award-winning CDs. Their first recording, an all-Haydn album, was a Strad selection, and their 2010 Mendelssohn CD was a Fono Forum selection (disc of the month) that received acclaim from critics and audiences worldwide. In 2012, their fourth album was dedicated to youth, with quartets by the young Mozart, Schubert, and Arriaga, and their 2013 collection of music by Debussy, Ravel, and Saint Saëns also got rave reviews including a Strad selection. They will release a new recording of Haydn quartets in 2014.

Only one year after they were formed, the quartet attracted international attention by winning the Frits Philips String Quartet competition in Eindhoven. The quartet then took first prize at the Vittorio Rimbotti competition in Florence and won the Young Concert Artists Auditions in New York in 2006. Following their studies at the Conservatoire, the Modigliani Quartet remained in Paris to study with the Ysaÿe Quartet and attended masterclasses by Walter Levin and György Kurtág, then went to Berlin to work with the Artemis Quartet at the Universität der Künste.

The quartet regularly plays chamber music with Sabine Meyer, Renaud Capuçon, Nicholas Angelich, Jean-Frédéric Neuburger and many other musician friends.

In 2014, the Modigliani Quartet will become artistic directors of the Rencontres Musicales d’Evian, reviving the festival, which had flourished under its former artistic director, the legendary Mstislav Rostropovich, but which more recently had undergone a thirteen-year dormancy.

Thanks to the generosity and support of its sponsors, the Modigliani quartet plays on four outstanding Italian instruments: Philippe Bernhard plays a 1780 violin by Giovanni Battista Guadagnini; Loïc Rio plays a 1734 violin by Alessandro Gagliano; Laurent Marfaing plays a 1660 viola by Luigi Mariani; and François Kieffer plays a 1706 cello by Matteo Goffriller (former "Warburg").





Of the many composers who were child prodigies, Camille Saint-Saëns was one of the most remarkable. He started playing the piano at two and a half, and wrote his first piece at three. When he was ten, he performed concertos by Beethoven and Mozart and, as an encore, offered to play whichever of Beethoven’s piano sonatas the audience cared to hear.

Saint-Saëns lived well into the twentieth century, but his music honors the past rather than striking out in new and innovative directions. He was greatly acclaimed in the US and Great Britain, although his reputation in his homeland suffered from his reluctance to accept avant-garde music (he was horrified by Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring). Nevertheless, he was Fauré’s teacher and close friend, and founded the Société Nationale de Musique, dedicated to "Ars Gallica"—the promotion of new music by
French composers.

Saint-Saëns composed the String Quartet No.1 in E Minor, Op.112, while in the Canary Islands, and dedicated it to the violinist Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931). A slow introduction is followed by an energetic Allegro, obviously written with the virtuoso dedicatee in mind, but requiring technical artistry from all the players.

The Scherzo (Molto allegro quasi presto) offers no respite from the headlong rush of notes. The central Trio starts with a four-voice fugue. (The composer was very fond of J.S. Bach and was part of the movement to revive his music). Saint-Saëns breaks with the traditional form of a scherzo, adding a slow, lyrical coda near the end of the movement before briefly returning to the main theme for an ending that fades into nothingness.

In the slow movement (Molto adagio), the first violin is again featured, with a floating aria in A major. The melody becomes more syncopated, and the cello becomes more involved, but the spotlight remains on the first violin.

The finale (Allegro non troppo) returns to the home key of E minor. Saint-Saëns brings back the complex figurations, syncopations, and contrapuntal passages of previous movements, and ends the work, as might be expected, with a furious acceleration to the final chord—once again in the minor mode.

We are fortunate that Robert Schumann kept a journal for much of his life, so we know of his problems and his triumphs. His writings also give us a glimpse of the fertile imagination and profound musical understanding that made Schumann the consummate Romantic composer as well as an important writer on musical subjects and composers of his era.

In the opening movement of his String Quartet in A Major, Op. 41, No. 3, a slow introduction (Andante espressivo) features a falling fifth in the violin and then in the cello. When the Allegro molto moderato starts, the tempo changes from 4/4 to 3/4, a shift that recurs many times. The movement is episodic, with sections of widely varying character—from gentle waltz, to sharp announcement, to aria-like melody with syncopated accompaniment—but all the parts are unified by the recurring descending fifth motif. It is no surprise that the movement ends simply, with the cello offering one more falling fifth.

The second movement (Assai agitato) serves as the scherzo, although it is organized as a theme and variations rather than the usual ternary ABA structure. Schumann was known for his short piano pieces, so the multiple variations provide a perfect vehicle for the many-sided nature of his musical personality. Although they vary greatly in style, the overall mood is one of intensity and storminess. All the variations are in the relative minor (F sharp minor) up to the coda, which moves to F sharp major to give us a final respite.

In the slow movement (Adagio molto) we hear Schumann the composer of Lieder (art songs). The flowing melody is given a lush accompaniment, and moves from gentle ballad to dramatic plaint and back to tender love song. Once again, an epilogue is appended to the song, like the sigh that comes after reading the happy ending of a romantic story.

Schumann studied the quartets of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven in preparation for writing his Opus 41 string quartets. Perhaps he was influenced by Haydn in his Finale (Presto), since it is filled with sprightly good humor. The rondo (ABACA…) is another structure that fit well with Schumann's miniaturist tendencies. A recurring rondo theme gallops along, providing a unifying element for the disparate intervening episodes. In this movement, episodes recur as well, so even though the style changes frequently, familiar music keeps returning. Instead of offering us the gentle fadeout, this time Schumann ends with an exciting flourish.

Maurice Ravel attended the Paris Conservatory, but his style did not meet that institution’s standards of what was acceptable musical composition. He submitted works to be considered for the Prix de Rome five times, but none of them received the official stamp of approval. By 1905, the year of his fifth try for the prize, he was already established with the concertgoing public as an important composer, which embarrassed the Conservatory considerably. This "Ravel controversy" played an important part in the changing of the guard at the venerable French institution, with Ravel’s teacher, Gabriel Fauré—a more forward-looking and less rigid thinker—taking over the top position. Ravel dedicated his only string quartet, the String Quartet in F Major, to Fauré.

The Allegro moderato starts with a warm melody in the violin, while the other three instruments play a repeated pattern that rises slowly in pitch over several measures, then descends. The inner voices are important, even though the violin has the melody. In the development, the theme is fragmented into motivic elements that can serve as melody or accompaniment.

In the second movement, marked Assez vif (Fairly lively), Ravel makes extensive use of pizzicato and syncopation. The short repeated phrases are climaxed by a bowed trill in the first violin that leaps up one octave and then another. After the second, slower, legato theme, the cello announces, with a plucked introduction, that the pizzicato section is returning.

The viola has the lead for much of the slow movement, Très lent (Very slow). The many rich melodies are all connected to the short motif that opens the movement. Brief repeated phrases abound, and the hypnotic repetitions are offset by moments of intensity. The movement ends with a lullaby-like final cadence.

Loud, repeated notes wake us up for the finale, Vif et agité (Lively and agitated). Sweeter melodies return, and there is a struggle between forceful and gentle, soft and loud, consonant and dissonant. Finally, all four play as one, using parallel chords up the notes of the triad, reestablishing the basic elements out of which this music is formed.


All program notes are copyright Miriam Villchur Berg. It is permissible to quote short excerpts for reviews. For permission to quote more extensive portions, or to copy,  publish, or make other use of these program notes, please contact her at Program Notes © 2014 by Miriam Villchur Berg