Eerie Affinities: The Vogler Quartet

Vogler Quartet_edited-1
From their first, tremulous notes of Schubert’s 1824 Quartettsatz in C Minor, D. 703, the Vogler Quartet (estab. 1985 in East Berlin) held a packed house in thrall at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, for their Monday night concert April 7, as part of the Chamber Music San Francisco series. The Volger principals – Tim Vogler and Frank Reinecke, violins; Stefan Fehlandt, viola; and Stephan Forck, cello – exhibited a remarkable homogeneity of tone and style held in chaste proportion and restrained vibrato, to hearken back to the golden days of chamber musicianship led by the likes of Adolf Busch and Wolfgang Schneiderhahn.

Franz Schubert proved the most conspicuous recipient of the Voglers’ multifarious gifts, since the composer’s lyric work also concluded the lengthy program with his exquisite 1824 Quartet in A Minor, D. 804, noted for its long-familiar “Rosamunde” Andante movement, whose theme is almost identical to that of Schubert’s Impromptu in B-flat Major, Op. 142, No. 3, D. 935. The C Minor Quartet-movement in the Voglers’ performance, projected the Allegro assai’s nervous beauty, much in the manner of the “Unfinished” Symphony in B Minor. Even the A-flat dolce theme cast a wiry persona, with violinist Tim Vogler’s having to run up three octaves in transition. The big melody in G Major only intensified the tragic dolor of the piece, its anguished cries and sense of angst returning at the concluding bars to hurl a sense of imminent catastrophe at us.

We often forget that Schubert fashioned his A Minor Quartet as a compendium of selected songs and incidental music, specifically for the Rosamunde play – its entr’acte – written c. 1823. This beautiful work, too, opens with an otherworldly tinge of doom and personal tragedy. The Vogler players moved suavely through Schubert’s shifts of major and minor modes, infiltrated by episodes of fierce counterpoint. If one had to look for visual equivalents this evening, one might well have considered the work of Gustav Moreau and his uncanny, suggestive hints of the eerie and the spiritually nebulous world that lies behind our complacent sense of the norm. For all of Schubert’s mastery of this anxiously colored Romanticism, the dominant force for this program lay in the Quartet No. 1 by Erwin Schulhoff, written exactly a century later, in 1924. But the Schubert did provide a real sense of closure — its last two movements, the Menuetto and the Allegro moderato’s only relenting slightly in their taut melancholy, with the third movement’s sad Laendler of a trio and the petulant gypsy dance that characterizes the finale.

If there were a scherzo in this evening’s presentation, Beethoven provided it with his gracious String Quartet in D Major, Op. 18, No. 3 (1801), music well within the Haydn tradition but still bearing the marks of Beethoven’s characteristic, iconoclastic experiments in harmony and texture. Violinists Vogler and Reinecke played up the sudden dissonances upon which Beethoven insists in the opening Allegro, his having replaced the C-sharp in the D Major progression with a C-natural and rather wide leaps that propelled our attention forward. The rustic Andante con moto in B-flat Major focused our attention – and this lasted the remainder of the evening – upon the sonorous talents of viola player Stefan Fehlandt, whose fugal colloquies with cellist Stephan Forck left us spellbound, by their tonal beauty and rhythmic acuity.  A series of whiplash turns defines the Allegro third movement, a bravura demonstration of the appoggiatura procedure as a source of rhythmic thrust and surprise. Beethoven peppers his sonata-form Presto finale with all sorts of canonic sleights of hand, wittily and expansively realized by the Voglers, right up to the coda, which dynamically dropped to pianissimo in all four players.

The glory of the concert came in the Voglers’ “mission statement,” their championing of the String Quartet No. 1 by Schulhoff, a talented composer condemned and doomed by Nazi terror. Schulhoff in a letter to Alban Berg in 1921 called himself “earthly, even bestial.” Certainly his Quartet opened, Presto con fuoco, with frenetic, gruff confidence, a bold mixture of Bartok, Janacek, and Kodaly, cross-fertilized with modal elements from Debussy and Hebraic doxology. The deftness of Slavic invention continued into the Allegretto, a sectionalized movement the composer labels “grotesque,” much in the manner of Bartok, that once more had us transfixed by the viola. The Allegro giocoso third movement quite awed us listeners as the Vogler Quaret plucked, thumped, and battered their instruments in Slavic percussion into musical submission, a sheer force of musical will. The playfulness suddenly left off with the last movement, an Andante molto sostenuto, likely a legacy of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique and Mahler symphonies that like to end in melancholy. If Kodaly and perhaps Shreker had been musical guides in irony, the last movements projects a touching, lyric sensibility, demanding what amounted to the most controlled, fading diminuendo from four harmonized string instruments it has been my privilege to hear.

The little encore, a string quartet arrangement of “The Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells” from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition left us with a bit of comic relief and more, dazzling color bravura from a consummate chamber music ensemble whose time has clearly come.

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