Last night’s Faculty Artist Series recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) featured cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau, performing with two faculty colleagues (Axel Strauss on violin and Jodi Levitz on viola) and two alumni (Joseph Maile on violin and Pei-Ling Lin on viola). The program consisted of the entire ensemble performing two nineteenth-century quintets, an early work by Felix Mendelssohn (Opus 18 in A major) and a late one by Johannes Brahms (Opus 111 in G major). What was most significant about the evening, however, was probably the decision of the performers to use gut strings in the interest of sonorities more appropriate with the period when these works were composed.
Readers of my national site may recall that, about a year ago, I wrote a fair amount about gut strings in conjunction with the decision of the Eroica Quartet to record the quartets of Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy with gut. I suggested that the distinction between gut and metal might be harder to recognize on a recording due to microphone placement. In last night’s physical setting, it was easier to appreciate just how much more subtle the sonorities were; and the acoustics of the SFCM Concert Hall were definitely conducive to those subtleties. This was particularly the case with the opening Mendelssohn quintet. Even when he was writing at his most homophonic, one was keenly aware of how every voice contributed to the overall sense of harmonic progression (as one would be when listening to a madrigal with one voice to each part).
One of the physical attributes of the gut string is that its spectrum is not as rich in upper harmonics as that of any metal string. That is why the sonorities are more subtle, as are the overall dynamics. In the case of Mendelssohn’s score, this more low-key approach to instrumental sonority endowed the music with greater signification, whether it involved harmony, counterpoint, or even the rhetoric of phrasing. One could appreciate that Mendelssohn had written this composition with subtle qualities that could be overshadowed by more powerful instruments.
The Brahms quintet, on the other hand, abounds with bold statements. Those familiar with this music would have been justified in wondering whether gut strings would be up to the many aggressive gestures featured in the score. This turned out not to be a problem. Fonteneau’s opening cello line soared its way through the tremolo passages of the violins and violas, getting the quintet off to a firm forward-looking start from which none of the performers ever looked back.
Ultimately, the Brahms succeeded in the same way that the Mendelssohn did. The most important factor in the performance of each work was the overall blend of the ensemble. Both composers explored a variety of ways in which the instruments would perform in combination, and each of those combinations reverberated with its own characteristic sonority, with a distinctiveness that tends to be less evident in the rich overtone spectra of metal strings. Thus the entire program turned out to be delightfully revelatory for both Mendelssohn and Brahms in equal measure.
The only real disadvantage came from the physical property of the gut itself. A fair amount of retuning had to take place after every movement. Under the stress of performance, these strings do not hold their pitch very well; and that is why retuning is so necessary. (This led me to wonder just how well the Eroica gut strings held up under all that pizzicato writing in the Ravel and Debussy quartets.) So much time went into retuning that, before the concert began, Strauss joked about the need to tell the difference between when they were playing and when they were tuning. Things were not quite that extreme, but the experience left an appreciation for at least one aspect of the impact of modern technology on strings.