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Review by David Richards
Toronto ON March 17 2017

Philharmonia Quartett Berlin; Photo credit:

Music Toronto audiences have been thrilled this season by the quality of the string quartets that have come to the Chamber Music Downtown concerts at the Jane Mallet Theatre. Four of the five concerts have begun with a work by Haydn. The music of Haydn, the father of the string quartet, is always a good choice. The Eybler Quartet, in its performance last month, chose a programme of Haydn and his contemporaries representing the early development of the genre from 1770 to 1800. Last night, the Philharmonia Quartett Berlin’s concert gave a wonderful demonstration of the influences Haydn had in the world of string quartets on two of his musical descendants: Beethoven and Schumann. 

The Phiharmonia Quartett Berlin (PQB), a world-class ensemble, found all the nuances of the music of these composers. PQB, made up exclusively of members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, has been together with only one personnel change since 1985. The members have spent their lives immersed in the quartet music of Haydn, Beethoven and Schumann. The polished, tight-knit, masterful playing is the result of their years together.   The ensemble has recorded and toured in all of the major world centres.  It  has performed as part of the Music Toronto series seven times. The quartet is currently on a tour of eight cities in the U.S. and Canada.

The program began last night with a sparkling performance of Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 64 No. 4 (Hob.III:66). Written in 1790, the year that Haydn was finally released from the Esterháza court and free to travel and publish his music, the music was a glistening prelude to all that followed. It is not clear whether Haydn had intended this quartet for the Esterháza court or for his upcoming London concerts. In either case, the work proved last night to be the perfect spirited opening to a wonderful concert, in no small part because of the blend and balance of the four members of PQB. The striking tone of first violinist Daniel Strabawa was complimented by the warm sounds of cellist Dietmar Schwalke, violinist Christian Stadelman and violist Neithard Resa.

Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat, Op. 18, No. 6 carried on in the spirit of the previous work. It began with an opening subject that could have been written by Haydn. Each of the players had a turn at the theme which set a tone of joyous energy.  The second movement with its melody of longing and sadness was played beautifully by violinist Strabawa with inventive accompaniments and interludes led in turn by the others. The scherzo was full of syncopation and exuberance characteristic of Beethoven. The final movement provided the drama as it oscillated between the Adagio “La Malinconia” and a rustic German dance. Was Beethoven wrestling with his impending deafness? If so, he carries on to an uplifting conclusion.

Following intermission, the quartet performed Robert Schumann’s String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 41, No. 1. To write his Op 41 quartets, Schumann immersed himself in the works of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Mendelssohn and with a typical burst of unbridled enthusiasm between June 4th and 22nd of 1842, he composed three string quartets. The opening melancholic theme played in turn by each instrument set the tone for the first movement. While there were moments in which the mood lifted, it inevitably returned to the personal anguish and pain that was to be Schumann’s story. The Scherzo had the effervescence of Mendelssohn and after a beautiful adagio in which both violinist Strabawa and cellist Schwalke shone with soulful melodious playing, the finale brought a joyful and exciting conclusion.

The Philharmonia Quartett Berlin returned for an encore: the fourth movement (Alla danza tedesca) from Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13, Op. 130, a playful German dance. The concert was much more than a lesson in the inter-relationships of the the music of Haydn, Beethoven and Schumann. It comprised sublime music performed with passion, understanding and compelling beauty.

Music Toronto’s next performance in its Chamber Music Downtown series will feature Canadian pianist Marc-Andre Hammelin on Thursday March 23rd 2017 at 8pm.

Haydn and his musical descendants make for great musical ‘edutainment’!