Signum Quartet

String Quartet

February 12, 2017, 4 PM

Music Room

Since its founding in 1994, the Signum Quartet has established a reputation for energetic performances and imaginative programs. As enthusiastic advocates of new music and unusual repertoire, they develop in this concert the idea of the fugue in string quartets, from Mozart’s arrangements of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and his own “Hunt” Quartet to the astonishing fugal finale of Beethoven’s Op. 59 No. 3. The concert also includes a much more recent “Hunt” Quartet (2003) by German composer Jörg Widmann, which uses Schumann’s Papillons as its starting point. Also featured on this concert are some of Signum’s signature quartweets, or various composers’ Twitter-submitted quartets of 140 notes or less.


Adagio and Fugue in E Major, K. 405/3 (1776)
     after J.S. Bach BWV 878 from the Well-Tempered Clavier

String Quartet No. 17 in B-flat Major, K. 458 "The Hunt"
     Allegro vivace assai
     Menuetto and Trio. Moderato
     Allegro assai

     a selection of twitter-submitted quartets of 140 notes or less                                                                     

JÖRG WIDMANN (b. 1973)
String Quartet No. 3 “Jagdquartett” (2003)


LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)                                                                    
String Quartet No. 9 in C Major, Op. 59/3
     Introduzione. Andante con moto – Allegro vivace
     Andante con moto quasi Allegretto (A minor)
     Menuetto. Grazioso – Trio
     Allegro molto

Thanks to its rousing and lively interpretations and individual programme concepts, the Signum Quartet has made its mark on the international quartet scene and has established itself as one of the most distinguished ensembles of its generation.

Intensive studies with the Alban Berg Quartet, Artemis Quartet and the Melos Quartet as well as collaborations with György Kurtág, Walter Levin, Alfred Brendel, Leon Fleisher and Joerg Widmann have shaped the artistic development of the Signum Quartet, which has won numerous awards (German Music Competition, Premio Paolo Borciani, London International String Quartet Competition) and has been accorded intensive support (i.a. BBC New Generation Artists).

Their recording ‘No.3’, released in May 2013, presents quartets by Bartók, Schnittke and Berg, and in January 2014 was announced as recipient of the International Classical Music Awards 2014 ‘Best Chamber Music Recording’.

Concert appearances have taken the Signum Quartet to international podia from Madrid and Barcelona to Basel and Paris. The quartet has performed at the Hamburg Laeiszhalle, the Berlin Philharmonie and Konzerthaus, the Luxemburg Philharmonie, the Concertgebouw Amsterdam, the Wigmore Hall London, the Gewandhaus Leipzig, the Boston Harvard Musical Association as well as at the Schleswig-Holstein, Rheingau and Schwetzingen Music Festivals and at the BBC Proms.

Regular collaborations with contemporary composers are an integral aspect of the Signum Quartet’s artistic work. Bruno Mantovani will dedicate his String Quartet No. 3 to the ensemble, which they will perform in London, Vienna, Frankfurt, Paris and Amsterdam in the 2016/ 2017 season.

Chamber music partners of the quartet include Joerg Widmann, Igor Levit, Nils Moenkemeyer, Adrian Brendel and Dominique Horwitz.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Adagio and Fugue in E Major, K. 405 No. 3 (1782)
In April 1782, Mozart wrote to his father from Vienna, “I go to the house of Baron van Swieten every Sunday at 12 o’clock – and nothing is played there except Handel and Bach. I am making a collection of Bach’s fugues.” Gottfried van Swieten (1733–1803) was a remarkable man. Born in Leiden (Netherlands), he served as a diplomat in Paris and at the court of Frederick the Great in Berlin, and subsequently became the librarian of the Imperial Library in Vienna (where his innovations included producing the world’s first library card catalogue). He was a notable patron of Mozart, Haydn, and the young Beethoven and he prepared the German versions (along with some suggestions about how the words might be set) for Haydn’s Creation and Seasons. Mozart’s arrangements of Bach’s fugues are fascinating examples of one great composer transcribing the work of another, and his choice of the E Major Fugue from Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier is particularly intriguing. After a consoling prelude, Bach’s fugue begins with a four-note phrase that Mozart himself was to use on several occasions, most famously as the first four notes of the great finale of the “Jupiter” Symphony.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, String Quartet No. 17 in B-flat Major, K. 458 “The Hunt” (1784)
In 1785 the Viennese publisher Artaria issued a set of six string quartets by Mozart, the title page of which reads, “Six Quartets for two violins, viola and violoncello. Composed and dedicated to Signor Joseph Haydn, Master of Music for the Prince of Esterhazy, by his friend W.A. Mozart.” This was a most unusual dedication for the time: composers nearly always dedicated works to the aristocrats who supported them financially, not to fellow musicians. The Artaria edition of the six “Haydn” Quartets includes a long dedicatory epistle dated September 1, 1785, headed “To my dear friend Haydn.” The quartets, Mozart writes, are “the fruit of a long and laborious study,” but that Haydn himself had told Mozart of his “satisfaction with them during your last visit to this capital. It is this above all which urges me to commend them to you…and to be their father, guide, and friend!”

Their admiration was mutual: after hearing these quartets, Haydn told Mozart’s father that “your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name.” Mozart’s “long and laborious study” included a detailed examination of Haydn’s Six Quartets Op. 33, which had been composed in 1781 and which certainly served as an inspiration and probably as a model for Mozart’s magnificent set.

The fourth of the six string “Haydn” Quartets, in B-flat Major, was entered in Mozart’s handwritten thematic catalogue of his works on November 9, 1784, described simply as “a quartet” – the “Hunt” nickname came later, though it’s easy to see where it originated: the opening movement has the familiar “hunting” rhythm that is found in many pieces by Haydn and Mozart. After a Minuet that includes some pleasingly irregular phrases and unexpected accents (and an enchanting Trio), the Adagio is the expressive heart of the work, a rapt movement in which a seemingly endless stream of melodic invention is supported by rich and ingenious harmonies. The second theme–a tender descending tune–is a miraculous case in point: it is first heard on the violin, then high on the cello, each time with a subtly shifting accompaniment of gentle repeating chords that produces music of heart-stopping beauty. The finale is brilliant and untroubled, but in fact it’s Mozart’s second attempt at finding a conclusion for the work. Mozart usually composed at great speed, and he often completed a new string quartet in the space of a week or two. But this work gave him real difficulty: Alan Tyson’s study of the manuscripts reveals that Mozart took more than a year to complete the quartet, and only after extensive revisions, especially to the first and last movements.

#Quartweets, notes by Signum Quartet
Music is all about communicating. Much of our everyday communication takes place on social media, and we would like to see musical communication here as well. We invite composers of all ages and abilities to tweet us a short quartet of 140 notes or less on Twitter—a #quartweet!

Following in the footsteps of Bach and Webern, both unwitting quartweeters, there will be #quartweets by Grawemeyer Award winners Sebastian Currier and Brett Dean, Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Shaw, Bruno Mantovani, Steven Mackey, Derek Bermel, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Julian Grant, Jing Jing Luo, Konstantia Gourzi, and more. Matthijs van Dijk has written #quartweet no.1 “Eine kleine Dubstep”.

The project, founded by the Signum Quartet, launched at a residency hosted by the Princeton Symphony Orchestra in October 2015. A partnership with Cardiff University and Rob Fokkens has followed with workshops being an essential part of the project. We include #quartweets in our concerts and broadcast them regularly on Periscope and YouTube.

Jörg Widmann, String Quartet No. 3 “Jagdquartett” (2003)
Jörg Widmann is much in demand as a clarinetist and conductor as well as being one of Germany’s most innovative composers. His composition teachers included Hans Werner Henze and Wolfgang Rihm, and his works have been performed by many of Europe’s leading ensembles including the Orchestre de Paris and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. He has worked as Composer in Residence with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra and as the Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer Fellow of the Cleveland Orchestra. In 2014, Widmann’s Piano Concerto was first performed by Yefim Bronfman, with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Simon Rattle. Alongside his major orchestral works and pieces for music theatre, Widmann’s five string quartets lie at the core of his output. They are intended to form a large cycle and were composed between 1997 and 2005. The quartets each have the characteristic movements of a classical quartet. Widmann’s Jagdquartett represents the fast middle movement, the Scherzo.

The influence of Schumann is pervasive (he is one of Widmann’s favorite composers). The “Hunt” begins with a quotation from the finale of Schumann’s Papillons (which itself mirrors the dotted rhythms of first movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, another likely source of inspiration for this work), Widmann’s Jagdquartett is cast in a single movement that the composer himself describes as a depiction of a violent act, dominated by driving, obsessive rhythms and some surprising effects (which deserve to remain surprises). As Widmann himself puts it, in a hunt, “someone or something is killed. In my piece, it's the cellist who dies with a long scream at the end. Audiences sometimes smile at this moment, but what I wanted them to feel was that they would start laughing, but it dies in their throats. It's ambivalent.” It’s an absorbing experience imagining the gruesome narrative trajectory that drives this virtuoso work, with the three upper instruments seeming at the end to gang up on the cello with a kind of convulsive (and disturbing) intensity.

Ludwig van Beethoven, String Quartet in C Major, Op. 59 No. 3 (1806)
Andrey Razumovsky was the Russian Ambassador in Vienna, appointed by the Tsar in 1792. He remained in the city throughout the Napoleonic era, and negotiating on Russia’s behalf at the Congress of Vienna in 1814. A passionate music lover (and a competent amateur violinist), he was already a member of Beethoven’s circle when he asked Beethoven for a set of three quartets that were to include traditional Russian tunes. Beethoven did so in the first two quartets, but not in the third (though the slow movement certainly has a Slavonic character). “Demanding but dignified” was how the Allgemeine Musik-Zeitung described Beethoven’s new set of three quartets dedicated to Count Razumovsky when they were first heard in 1807. Composed in 1806, and including Russian melodies from a collection of folk tunes edited by Ivan Prach (published in 1790), these quartets were a major development in the quartet form; but though they were longer and more challenging than any earlier quartets, they were an immediate success. Before the Razumovsky Quartets were played, Beethoven offered them to Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig–in a job lot with the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Fourth Symphony, and Fidelio, but the deal fell through and the quartets were first published in Vienna by the Bureau des Arts et d’Industrie and in London by Clementi. While the first of the Razumovsky Quartets is unusually expansive, the second is more concentrated, and the third, in C Major, is the most intense and dramatic.

The shortest of the three Razumovsky Quartets, the C Major Quartet was the only one not to baffle critics when it was new. The work was finished during the summer of 1806 and the first performances were given by a quartet led by Ignaz Schuppanzigh. The autographed score is one of Beethoven’s neater manuscripts, and it reveals some intriguing revisions, including a cut of two bars in the finale and two different endings for the Minuet, the first of them crossed out. In some ways the ready acceptance of this work by traditionalist critics at the time is surprising, since the opening chords are full of strange ambiguity and harmonic tension. Donald Francis Tovey wrote in the eleventh edition of Encyclopedia Britannica (1910–1911) that “the chaos of this mysterious slow introduction…prepared us for the world of loveliness that arises from it.” This gives way to a bright Allegro vivace in C Major that dispels the uncertainty of the opening. The second movement, in A minor, begins with a haunting theme heard over repeated pizzicato cello notes and there’s a feeling of obsession about the way Beethoven develops his material here. Incidentally, Beethoven’s sketches show that his original plan was to use a completely different idea: the theme that later became the famous Allegretto of the Seventh Symphony. The Minuet, back in the home key of C Major, is an untroubled and elegant contrast, with a particularly attractive Trio section. Perhaps the most remarkable of the four movements is the thrilling finale: starting out as a fugue and developing into a movement of unremitting energy and drive. This is Beethoven at his most confident and assured since the onset of his deafness a few years earlier–and among the sketches for the astonishing finale is a note by the composer: “In the same way that you rush into the whirlpool of society, so it is possible to write music despite all social hindrances–let your deafness be no more a secret–even in art.”

Nigel Simeone, 2017