It is not often that one comes across a young quartet that has achieved both individuality and total command of their subject matter. The Hermes String Quartet from France, and now in residence in Brussels, played at the Morgan Library Wednesday. They had that and more.
They have been playing together, beginning with their conservatory in Lyons, France. They are so comfortable playing together; they so well know what each can contribute that their music displays a refined ease. One often hears such intimate unison in jazz, but not so often in the classical realm. They also come across as strong individual voices: violinists Omer Bouchez and Elise Liu, cellist Anthony Kondo and violaist Yung-Hsin Chang, each add their own character, which is something I like to hear. It was particularly appropriate in Mozart’s Quartet No. 14 in G Major. This was a free-flowing, usually jaunty, piece with solemn andante that provided second dimension. It was performed with care in detail, as each instrument offered personal statement. They introduced it as a piece that was written for and played by a musical circle which included Mozart and Haydn. The Hermes played it brilliantly.
The second piece was “Death and the Maiden”, Quartet No. 14 by Franz Schubert. At 40 minutes of intense music, it is something of a test for both players and audience. Nevertheless, the players managed to keep a rising pitch of intensity through all four movements, wherein Schubert reflected on his own death in his early thirties and on his own love of life, a lonely soul wrestling with the inevitable: an almost impossible set of contrasts running through the piece. It arcs a steep mountain of music that was climbed and descended while expressed in the language of romanticism.
The performance was part of a series of Young Concert Artist winners who play in noontime concerts at the Morgan. YCA acts as the U.S. agent for its winners. The Hermes is really getting around: they finish their American tour this week, followed by performances in Germany, Japan and back then to Germany, Vienna, Poland, France and Italy, all by the end of April.