Something remarkable happened in Vancouver this weekend! We enjoyed clear, bright, and chilly sunshine all weekend. But that wasn’t it. Due to slow international artists working visa processing (not by the Canadian government, but by another one) the Mandelring Quartett’s first violinist, Sebastian Schmidt, was stranded at home in Germany. But the Mandelring was to play in Vancouver on Sunday afternoon! And second violinist Nanette Schmidt, cellist Bernhard Schmidt (younger siblings of Sebastian) and violist Andreas Willwohl had arrived here by Friday evening. Three musicians do not make a string quartet. Would the concert be cancelled?
After some intense electronic communications on Friday, Vancouver’s own Marc Destrubé stepped into the breach. Destrubé has been a stalwart of the Vancouver chamber music community and the “historically informed performance” community for many years. And luckily for us, he had the weekend free, and had recently been working on Gyorgy Ligeti’s challenging String Quartet No. 1 for performances with his own quartet. While the Mandelring had planned to play Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 1, Mr. Destrubé was more familiar with the composer’s Quartet No. 7, so that was substituted. And happily, of Beethoven’s 16 string quartets, he felt closest to being ready to play Opus 132 – which by lucky chance was scheduled for this concert.
After spending Saturday and half of Sunday rehearsing together (thankfully, Destrubé is fluent in German), the one-off different configuration of the Mandelring Quartett took the stage at the Vancouver Playhouse. While Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” was staged on the boards next door at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, we witnessed a different magic or alchemy take place on the concert platform. This was the Mandelring Quartett’s ninth appearance for Friends of Chamber Music, and it turned out that this became yet another opportunity for us to enjoy hearing their inspired music-making.
Adding Marc Destrubé to the trio of longtime members of the quartet slightly changed the dynamic in their sound. While still maintaining balance and precision, the blend was more lyrical, with a bit less bite. This subtle change did not lessen the harrowing emotional impact in the keening parts of Shostakovich’s seventh string quartet, written at the height of the Cold War. The contrasts of tone in this music, only slightly less well-known than the composer’s eighth quartet, were delivered with great feeling coupled with technical mastery. Some of us who have enjoyed the Mandelring Quartett’s recordings of the Shostakovich cycle of 15 quartets were not surprised by their ease in reaching into the heart of this work and communicating such passion to the audience. Of course, this music and its historical context are once again fresh when considering the state of affairs in Russia today.
Gyorgy Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 1 is a greater test of technique and control for most string quartets. Few top-level groups have been willing to present this music in concerts. We are fortunate, indeed, to have heard the Quartetto Casals perform it in February 2023, and then to hear it again on October 29 of the same year. A challenging work played live by two fine and different-sounding string quartets eight months apart. This performance of the Ligeti first quartet emphasised transparency, beauty of tone and balance, along with a beguiling rhythmic lilt that brought out the sense of dance in the music. An audience member mentioned in the lobby after the concert that her seven-year-old son had enjoyed this piece much more than (his mother had) expected.
Beethoven’s Opus 132 quartet, one of his Late Period quartets, is music that covers many emotions and moods, and is one of that great composer’s milestones in music, as well as being simply beautiful, along with so many other examples of his output. Beethoven is justly still regarded as one of history’s great composers, even now, 194 years after his death. The performance of Opus 132 by the Mandelring Quartett was rich in tone and beauty; their sound was well-balanced, and the musical expression was deeply felt. Whether or not this was a definitive performance (if there is such a thing) is immaterial: it was persuasive, attractive, and at times truly haunting. What more could we want in anticipation of Hallowe’en?
Our audience showed appreciation for this touching performance, and acknowledgement for meeting the challenge of integrating a first violinist into a long-established working quartet at the 11th hour. After an extended standing ovation, cellist Bernhard Schmidt spoke apologetically from the stage: “We have worked so hard on preparing what we have played for you, that we have not had time to prepare an encore.” It was also a lovely way to finish an afternoon indoors and emerge out into the crisp sunshine of Vancouver in late October with a warm feeling inside.