Valentine's Day concert about tormented love

(From left) Violist Lech Antonio Uszynski, cellist Maja Weber and violinists Wang Xiaoming and Sebastian Bohren of the Stradivari Quartet.
(From left) Violist Lech Antonio Uszynski, cellist Maja Weber and violinists Wang Xiaoming and Sebastian Bohren of the Stradivari Quartet.PHOTO: SINGAPORE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

REVIEW / CONCERT

INTIMATE LETTERS

The Stradivari Quartet/Victoria Concert Hall/Tuesday

The Swiss-based Stradivari Quartet were in town to play two concerts of Beethoven over the weekend, as well as a concert on Valentine's Day.

Valentine is mostly associated with love. But the original Valentine was a much more distant figure who languished in prison before suffering a particularly nasty death. Centuries later, he was posthumously apportioned saintly qualities, giving him special significance to bee-keepers, those suffering from plague and fits, and, of course, young lovers.

In a truly ingenious bit of programming, the Stradivaris reflected the complexities and contradictions of St Valentine - even down to the bee-keeping. But more of that later.

The first half was given to two Schumann string quartets. These may have been written for his wife, whom he loved deeply, but the musical character is anything but loving.

Schumann ended his days incarcerated in an asylum, mentally and physically destroyed, before suffering a painful death. Beyond love, the mental torture and anguish he suffered was written into these quartets.

The Stradivaris brought out these inner complexities and turbulent emotions in a sumptuously detailed performance. With a truly awesome level of intensity and a ravishing tone from the foursome's exceptional instruments, these were unusually vivid and expressive performances.

On top of that, the almost manic galloping of the First Quartet's Scherzo was a breathtaking display of collective virtuosity.

The other work in the programme was Janacek's Second Quartet. The composer originally called this quartet Love Letters and conceived each of the movements as a confession of his love for the girl of his dreams.

But it is not as straightforward as that. Janacek was a married 63-year-old and famous composer when he clapped eyes on the married and poorly educated 25-year- old Kamila. He was instantly infatuated. Kamila responded to his impassioned advances just enough to be the principal beneficiary of his will but, otherwise, kept him at arm's length.

Possibly unwilling to make his obsession too public, Janacek renamed the work Intimate Letters.

Intimacy was the hallmark of this performance. But more than that, it was a roller-coaster ride through feelings of affection, passion, anxiety and tenderness, which are the lot of those who experience unrequited love.

Once again, the Stradivari Quartet gave a passionate and intense account and, while some unfortunate overtones from the cello occasionally soured the sound, this was a genuinely riveting performance.

And the bee-keeping connection? When he was not composing or falling in love with younger married women, Janacek was an enthusiastic apiarist.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 16, 2017, with the headline 'Valentine's Day concert about tormented love'. Print Edition | Subscribe