October 10 2019
Review: William Ruff
Warmth and refinement from the award-winning Esmé Quartet
We’re all used to things changing in the world of music, but it still comes as a bit of a surprise to see a string quartet, a very European invention, made up of four young women from Korea.
The name of the ensemble comes from an Old French word meaning ‘loved’ or ‘esteemed’, which could be tempting fate – except for the fact that the energy and refinement of their playing seems to hold their audience in a warm embrace. Formed only three years ago they are already prominent on the world stage, having won First Prize at the Wigmore Hall International String Quartet competition last year.
Even if you couldn’t read all this in the programme notes, it would have taken only a few seconds of playing to make you realise they are something special. They produced a lovely sound in the opening Langsamer Satz by Anton Webern, their playing warmly tranquil for the most part but capable of high-octane passion as well.
Their performance of Beethoven’s Op.18 No 1 Quartet was everything the music demanded. To achieve such a light, well-balanced, airy sound and to shape the phrases with such insight into their meaning must take much painstaking rehearsal – but it was all made to sound exhilaratingly spontaneous. They seemed in their element when tackling all those sudden changes of dynamics and unpredictably stabbing accents of Beethoven at his most boisterously eccentric.
In the second half came Schubert’s last and longest Quartet in G, D887. Written miraculously in only ten days it seems to have much of the ambition and complexity of a symphony. The Esmé Quartet left their listeners in no doubt that this is music of white-hot inspiration, masterly, highly original – but not easily giving its secrets away. Their grasp of the architecture of the long opening movement was faultless; the slow movement elegiac and tender; the scherzo as light as air; the finale a mixture of Viennese elegance and haunted passions.
An encore was inevitable after such exceptional playing – and a traditional Korean folksong did very nicely.
Esmé Quartet (violinists Wonhee Bae and Yuna Ha, violist Jiwon Kim, and cellist Ye-eun Heo)