Camille Saint-Saens wrote only two string quartets. Both are late works the second, in fact, written when he was 84. They are rarities, since neither work has found a place in the repertoire. So when a quartet does program one of them, it's a treat.
The Ysaye Quartet, currently touring the United States, brought Saint-Saens' first quartet in E minor, op. 112, with it when it stopped at Libby Gardner Concert Hall on Wednesday. Written at the turn of the last century not a time in French music history known for its chamber music the E minor Quartet is a gem and one of the composer's most finely crafted works.
The quartet is romantic in its scope, content and expression, even though Saint-Saens abhorred the principles of romanticism, particularly its excesses. And, in fact, one can't find anything over the top in any of the movements. The work is well structured, and one can hear a clarity of lines and phrases reminiscent of Mozart, a composer whom Saint-Saens admired and tried to emulate in his own music.
The Ysaye Quartet (Guillaume Sutre and Luc-Marie Aguera, violin; Miguel da Silva, viola; Yovan Markovitch, cello) captured this dichotomy. It gave a dynamic reading that was defined and polished and also expressive.
The quartet brought depth and dimension to its interpretation. The slow movement was played with heartfelt sincerity, never overdone, yet charged with quiet emotional power.
In this movement, the musicians showed what they are capable of in expressive playing, and it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that one would have to look far and wide to find another quartet that could match their broad palette of expressions.
The Ysaye is a group of musicians with a fabulous sense of musicality. The performers know their craft and are masters of their instruments. As an ensemble, their playing is tight. They're intuitive and in touch with one another. Having been together for more than 20 years has certainly helped in that regard. Longevity can be its own reward and the Ysaye is living proof of that.
The four again put their remarkable interpretive skills on display in the second half of the concert, in Robert Schumann's Quartet in A major, op. 41, no. 3. The group gave a luminous performance that was filled with nuanced expressiveness. Its playing was insightful, and the musicians brought a wonderful intimacy to the slow movement a movement that almost feels like a love letter to Schumann's wife, Clara. The Ysaye brought this music to life.The concert opened with one of Joseph Haydn's most melodic quartets, the E flat major, op. 64, no. 6, which the Ysaye played with a lustrous lyricism.