Concert review: Philharmonia Quartett Berlin

German ensemble takes a balanced approach to its mixed musical heritage.


The name “Berlin” conjures up an uneasy hodgepodge of historical and political associations, not only as one of the principal cities of the world, but also as the center of progressive and regressive extremes, of flower and blight, then epicenter of the Cold War, re-flowering in our own day. When a string quartet names itself after Berlin, what does it mean for the music they play?

Portland audiences found out this week at Philharmonia Quartett Berlin’s two performances in Lincoln Performance Hall at Portland State University, sponsored by Friends of Chamber Music. I missed the all-Beethoven program, but caught the second evening, with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Dissonance” Quartet, K. 465, Béla Bartók’s first string quartet, and Johannes Brahms’s first, op. 51 #1. As one might expect from the principal string players of one of the world’s finest symphony orchestras, it means utterly superb technique, ensemble, and expression. For the Mozart and Bartok quartets in particular, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard finer.

Philharmonia Quartett Berlin played some hair-raising Brahms at Portland State University. Photo: John Green.

Philharmonia Quartett Berlin played a hair-raising Bartok passage at Portland State. Photo: John Green.

But a curious question remains. Berlin rose to prominence on the world stage rather late in life, well after Beethoven, Mozart and Josef Haydn made the much more easygoing (Berliners might say “frivolous”) Vienna the center of European music. Brahms too, and Bartók in Budapest, evoke the waning days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire far more than anything so Prussian as Berlin. How were these composers refracted through this echt-Deutsch ensemble?

What was striking at all times was a fine blend of seriousness and lyricism. Seriousness without dryness on the one hand or histrionics on the other, and a lyricism which seemed always guided by intelligence, even wisdom. The famously dark introduction of the Mozart quartet was taken just slow enough to let each passing apparent weirdness sink in, but in a singing presentation lent magic by first violin Daniel Stabrawa’s ethereal initial entrance. When the musical sun came out, rather than blithely taking off as if into an entirely different work, as so many groups do, the Berliners retained a certain knowing sweetness, as if to say, “we know you just had a rough time and we’re here for you.” The mood held through the rest of the work, possibly inspired by the professional and personal affection Mozart held for Haydn, its dedicatee.

Stabrawa put the ethereal keening to exquisite use again in the Bartók quartet, conjuring up a striking image in the central episode of the first movement, but the mood could not have been more different. Here one seemed to see the composer in the throes of unrequited love, punctuating these animal cries by banging his head on the wall (aggressive open fifths low on the cello). By the end of the final Allegro, with all its repeated scolds and rebukes, one began to feel that the object of his affections had a lucky escape. But the music never spun off into harshness. The singing was anguished, but it remained singing. Bartók’s brilliant imagination for piquant harmony and counterpoint came across as intriguing and expressive at all times; the performance was a marvel of sensitive micro-tuning.

Brahms’s first quartet is one of his thorniest, darkest works. He famously complained about hearing Beethoven’s giant’s tread close on his heels when writing quartets and symphonies, and it seems to have made him particularly testy this time around. There are great sweeps of drama too, but I missed some of that in the group’s performance, which maintained its seriousness and lyricism but seemed wary of getting too close to the edge of the dark pit. Brahms may have been living in Vienna by the time the quartet was finished, but its source is the Hamburg of his youth, and the storms blowing in off the North Sea. And yet the richly harmonized slow movement, styled Romanze, was suffused with a poignant glow. It was the expressive high point of the work.

The crowd’s ovations were enthusiastic, with more and more folks jumping up after each work.  Finally on the fourth curtain call after the Brahms, the group came out and played a fascinating Haydn slow movement, with harmonies nearly as exotic as the Mozart introduction, and a wistful minor-key tune thrown in the middle for contrast. It was intended to calm us down, said violinist Christian Stadelmann after graciously thanking us for our response, and it sort of worked – after two more ovations we finally let them go.

It’s no doubt fatuous to imagine that somehow just four people performing decades- or centuries-old works can embody the spirit of a modern city. But if Philharmonia Quartett Berlin does, it seems to be the spirit of a new Berlin, mindful of keeping a balance between the extremes of the past, and determined to faithfully and sensitively showcase gems of cultural history from its surrounding regions. It was a pleasure to bask in their brilliance.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist, and a member of the Cascadia Composers board of directors.

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3 Responses.

  1. Greg Ewer says:

    Thanks Jeff for this enlightening and vivid review. Bravo!

  2. bob priest says:

    yes, these guys are terrific.

    it’s too bad they couldn’t have included something from one of Berlin’s present day composers.

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