Review: Signum Quartet play Van Dijk, and Beethoven Op.130 and Op.132 at Monte Carlo International Festival

The Signum Quartet provide take a lyrical approach to Beethoven, prefaced with a compelling performance of Van Dijk’s epic depiction of rage.

Pairing van Dijk’s (Rage) Rage Against The for string quartet with two late Beethoven String Quartet provided an interesting comparison. van Dijk’s creation gave a sense of fractured voices gradually asserting themselves over time and breaking out into a full-blown community set-to, multiple voices articulated with devastating effect by only four instruments playing with a variety of effects. This work undoubtedly suited the Signum Quartet the best, in particular cellist Thomas Schwitz whose dedication to the multiple demands van Dijk’s score made saw the instrumentalist venture onto stage with bows, the hair of one was in shreds by the end of the performance.

The Signum Quartet’s stamina is clearly considerable. Soon after, the first of two late Beethoven quartets – the fifteenth. For those not in the know already, the fifteenth was written before the thirteenth, but the fifteenth was published after the thirteenth.

This felt like a broadly romantic approach to what I’ve always regarded as a tough, sinewy collection of works. The Signum’s sweet tone – warm cello, soft rounded viola, and bright-sounding violins – sometimes gave Beethoven’s very physical, complex and sometimes aggressive writing a delicacy I hadn’t heard before.

Here it felt like the quartet was in a lot of places getting accustomed to the acoustic of the Musee Oceanapgraphic. Detail in the pianissimos, especially staccatos was lost, meaning phrases appeared to start with a sense of confidence but later fizzle out. This inadvertently created a mild sense of frustration as though we were hearing the opening clause of a statement, but the concluding phrase was lost to mumbling and incoherence.

At least that was how proceedings started. Come the first appearance of the second subject in the third movement (sorry for the detail here), there a greater sense of precision, marked by my increasing awareness of the gaps in between the notes. This created a sense of electricity which in turn imbued the return of the opening subject of the movement with strength, warmth and determination. From then on, each subsequent return of each melodic idea came with a greater sense of clarity, and increased attentiveness.

If live performance is like a sporting match – this was a great example. My assumptions were challenged. Something changed. My attention was grabbed. In this way the fourth movement recitative built on the third movement gains.

Post-interval – a gratifyingly leisurely affair at the Monte Carlo Festival – the thirteenth quartet consolidated the transformation the Signum Quartet had secured. The first movement began with greater self-assurance and demonstrated how the group had become better accustomed to the acoustic. There was more attack in the fortissimo sections. A far more muscular sound: the lyricism had been put to one side for a while. And whilst this was maintained for a while, there was for me an overall lack of distinction between the various voices in the score which made the schizophrenic nature of Beethoven’s material meld more than I would have liked. But the fourth movement allegro exposed parts of the first violin part I’d never heard before – a fascinating set of syncopations which made me feel momentarially rebellious.

I last heard these quartets live in the Eglise at Verbier a couple of years back. My memory of that was they were epic performances of a phenomenally demanding work that those performances wanted us the audience to participate in. The Signums may well have been unfairly pitched against that personal memory.

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