Part 2 - Ensemble
“But all went well and the ensemble was perfect"
It's often true that playing in a modern quartet essentially means to play with ‘perfect ensemble’. Synchronisation, blend, unified phrasing, and discipline are prerequisites for the performance of the genre’s masterpieces. There appears to be an unspoken, collective understanding that any group without this special quality of ensemble may be many things - exciting, passionate, moving, effective - but it cannot truly be ‘a quartet’.Historically, though, things are not so straightforward. The title of this section comes from a review of a concert by the Bohemian Quartet in 1899, whose recording of Dvorak Op.96 we have already encountered. Such a throwaway comment would hardly require attention but for the existence of the group’s frequently ‘un-together’ recordings. And this mismatch of words and sounds raises an important question: has ‘perfect ensemble’ always meant what we think it means?*
It is worth bearing in mind that the Bohemian Quartet's members were fixtures of Czech musical life, taught a whole generation of chamber musicians, and regularly toured throughout Europe. Their performances received rave reviews, which praised their subtle musicianship and refined ensemble skills. They were also one of the very first ‘professional’ quartets, in that they comprised four permanent members rehearsing together regularly, rather than the more traditional combination of touring violin virtuoso and three local musicians. The Czechs’ intense working relationship bore fruit, and many contemporary critics hailed their playing as ushering in a new era of precision in chamber music performance.
And without recording, it would be quite easy to assume that the Bohemians were pioneers of a recognisably modern quartet style. Reviews of other London concerts almost universally follow our 1899 example, in lavishing praise on their command of detail and ensemble:
“Quartets… by Schubert, Smetana, and Beethoven, were rendered with a unanimity of attack and expression that confirmed the favourable opinions formed at the previous performance.” (Musical Times, April 1, 1897; p244-5)
“That there is an audience for string quartets when played with such rare finish and vigour the success of the Bohemian combination sufficiently proves…”
“...it is not only in this conservation of proportion that the Bohemian Quartet excels; it has other and higher qualities. Every little shade of musical feeling is realised, from the tenderest lingering sentiment to the soaring of sublime passion…” (Both from The Musical Standard, February 27, 1897, 7/165, p.129)
Yet, as we have seen, the sound of their performances doesn't appear to have much in common with 21st century expectations of good ensemble playing. Here is another example from their Dvorak, this time the second movement. They are certainly not meeting at every moment, but the performance itself is incredibly finely shaped and crafted. Is it possible that the word ‘ensemble’ carried a fundamentally different meaning for these critics, one that did not concern synchronisation at all?
Interestingly, this possibility is hinted at in much earlier descriptions of quartet performance. One of the most striking of these concerns Ignaz Schuppanzigh, the violinist and leader who had a close and long-lasting friendship with Ludwig van Beethoven. A correspondence from 1825 offers warm praise of the quartet’s precise ensemble, but goes on to rail against their “great arbitrariness, and too frequent use of the tempo rubato”. Such ‘great arbitrariness’ is unlikely to have resulted in precisely synchronised playing. But the remarks starts to make a little more sense if we try treating ‘ensemble’ as referring to another system altogether, perhaps a sense of the musicians’ creative attunement, the subtle shaping of their individual rubatos, a willingness to take risks, to challenge and respond to one another?
This type of interaction is still one of the most appealing things about chamber music, and spontaneous reaction and creativity is certainly not lacking from today’s performances. The difference is simply in the framework, the background of convention. Nowadays we are so used to precise synchronisation that it has ceased to be one expressive option among many, and has turned into a default position, an absolute law of ‘good performance’. The evidence simply suggests that some musicians of the past treated how to play together as another expressive category, one that offered all sorts of creative possibilities. For instance, we know that the metaphor of theatre, and the need for players also to be actors, was seen as an important part of quartet performances in the eighteenth century. It is possible that this dramatic sense even encouraged players to work ‘against’ their colleagues, as well as with them. To return to Schuppanzigh: arbitrariness and synchronisation may be mutually exclusive categories, but arbitrariness and interaction are not, and this may have taken many forms.
While it is tempting to see spontaneity and unpredictability as in some way ‘sacrificing’ good ensemble, this creates a false dichotomy, historically. If, in the past, synchronisation was one option among many, to talk of it being ‘sacrificed’ would have made no sense - we only sacrifice things that hold special, privileged value. The sense that it is a fundamentally desirable quality is relatively recent, and this realisation changes how we listen to old recordings. It enables us to see them as much more than ‘bad quartet playing’, and instead as something with a fundamentally different expressive vocabulary.
The idea of togetherness as a conscious choice is supported by the fact that the Bohemians' recorded performances actually contain plenty of examples of precisely matched, synchronised playing. Take this passage in the finale of the Dvorak:
Clip: Bohemian Quartet play Dvorak Op.96: 4th Movement
They play the unison phrases a little faster than most modern quartets, but are every bit as unified. In fact, their ensemble and rhythm is quite stable and simple until just over half-way through the excerpt, when something fundamental in their expressivity changes. It's an incredibly powerful character change. Moments like this show that, apart from anything else, their 'un-togetherness' is clearly not a question of competence - they absolutely can play like this when they want to. On the other hand, it is very hard to draw a line between what might have been accidental and what was a deliberate expressive choice, especially given the limitations of early recording techniques. While their handling of this moment seems to be quite deliberate, there may have been others which were less intentional; there is no way of knowing. They would have been In an unfamiliar studio environment, and obviously using single takes with no editing, and so we should also take seriously the idea that some unintended sounds made their way onto the records.
It is not only the ensemble issues that are fascinating about these recordings, and so in the blog we'll start to look at lots more aspects of their expressive approach. (Attitudes to notation will be one of the big ones, and their recording of their own violinist Joseph Suk's Op.12 is particularly interesting in that respect.) But there is already plenty of food for thought here about what it means for four people to make music together, what approaches to ensemble are currently permitted, and how a nuanced, historical view might affect some modern norms and expectations.
Much more written and recorded evidence is needed to be confident that the language of ‘ensemble’ actually changed in anything like the way described above; at the moment it is only a hypothesis. In any case, as with any aspect of performance style change, we should not expect a neat, uniform picture to emerge. Lots of other quartets were recorded in the 1920s, often with quite different approaches to the Czechs; just for starters, these include the Flonzaley Quartet, Capet Quartet and Klingler Quartet. (You can hear lots of these fascinating records for free on YouTube, as well as the British Library Sounds webpages: http://sounds.bl.uk/Classical-music/Chamber-music, and http://sounds.bl.uk/Classical-music/Beethoven). And the discussion has obviously been limited so far to Dvorak's American Quartet; thinking about repertoire, too, leads in some very interesting directions.
And so there is lots of work to be done! We're certainly not suggesting that there's anything innately superior about older approaches, just that taking them seriously opens up an exciting new set of possibilities for thinking about what it is we do in a quartet. Plenty more discussions of these recordings will follow, as we spend more time with them and chew it over...
*Admittedly, there is a gap of about 30 years between the reviewed and recorded performances, and it is certainly possible that these two performances sounded very different to one another. But there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that players of this period tended to remain quite consistent in their style once it had developed, usually around their mid-twenties. It is obviously impossible to know for sure, but it is not unreasonable to assume that what the reviewer in 1899 heard came rather closer to the group’s own performance than to a modern one!
© Chris Terepin 2015