Monday 13th of January 2014

The Wu Quartet, named after their first violinist Qian Wu, is a multi-award winning group of young players who combine tireless energy and enthusiasm with polished technical brilliance. Few string quartets would have chosen to bring together three such challenging works as Mozart’s Quartet in D Major, K575, Ligeti’s Quartet No.1 Métamorphoses Nocturnes and Beethoven’s Quartet in c sharp minor, Op. 131 all in the same concert. This was a hard and demanding programme for the performers and although thoroughly exciting and enjoyable, it required careful listening and rapt attention from the audience as well.

It was not surprising with this young and vibrant ensemble to get such a highly polished even cut crystal performance of Mozart from the Wu Quartet. Most commentaries on the piece stress the focus that Mozart gives to the cello in this work especially in the Andante and in the trio section of the Minuetto but with her usual perceptiveness, the programme note writer for Chamber Music Concerts drew to our attention the fact that Mozart constantly shares out the musical highlights among all four players. With their ardent crystal clear playing this is what came through in this performance especially in the opening movement but actually throughout the work. There was a great deal of intensity in the playing but moments of Mozartian delicacy too, especially in the trio of the third movement. The busy rondo finale gave us an exciting conclusion to the work. The sharing out of much thematic material among all four players was a new and more sophisticated way of quartet scoring from Mozart and made this work sit very nicely alongside the two other trailblazing works in the programme.

Ligeti’s Quartet No.1 although played as one continuous movement has as the programme note pointed out at least 17 contrasting sections. Beginning with a dizzying rising chromatic upsurge through the instruments it explored a multiplicity of adventurous contrasts in rhythm, harmony and above all string timbre and texture. There were moments almost of comedy with almost subliminal tweets from the cello and other instruments. Surprising percussive pizzicato slaps on cello, an almost tipsy waltz and mysterious unsettling quiet passages. In this always intense and often fiery performance it was fascinating to discover how the Wu Quartet managed to make such contrasting material flow so smoothly together merging the different effects into a cogent whole and thus making sense of this as a one movement work.

With this piece by Ligeti in the same programme as Beethoven’s Quartet in c sharp minor Op. 131 it was interesting to find so many similarities as well as differences in both works. Beethoven’s is of course much longer and even epic in its conception. It looks back to Bach but also reminds us that as well as being arguably first among the composers of the classical period, Beethoven’s music also lays the foundations for the later romantic composers. Listening to some of the variations that constitute the central Andante one can well understand why Schubert admired this piece so much.

Although the opening movement looks back to Bach it looks forward too and with their intense and emphatic playing the Wu Quartet made this clear. The third movement was almost like a moment of recitative before the central Andante with its surprising pizzicato outbursts or the mysterious dialogue in one of the slow variations which was indeed a thoroughly new adventure in imaginative quartet scoring from Beethoven.

The relatively short Adagio led into the finale in which the Wu Quartet managed to pace the music magically towards its conclusion making sense of the work just as they had done with the Ligeti Quartet and leaving us with a great deal to think about on our way home.

Wu Quartet Review