In their Philadelphia debut Thursday night, the Modigliani Quartet seemed to need some time to size up the Perelman Theater. This was the first stop on a U.S. tour, and the Paris-based group, opening with Haydn in a Philadelphia Chamber Music Society appearance, was reasonably tight. But something clicked in the next piece, Schumann, and from then on, they - and you - felt surety about the quartet's personality.
What kind of personality it was shifted throughout the evening. The opening of the Haydn, the String Quartet in G Major, Opus 76, No. 1, put perfectly matched sounds on display with a figure that passed from cellist François Kieffer, to violist Laurent Marfaing, second violinist Loïc Rio, and first violinist Philippe Bernhard. They made smart choices about where to use vibrato, often avoiding it altogether on sustained notes, suggesting period-appropriate awareness.
What's striking about the ensemble is that for all of their unanimity, leadership often came from Marfaing. Violists aren't usually allowed to be in charge, but time after time his voice could be heard leading. The program had something to do with it. Ravel's String Quartet in F Major puts his part out front.
Do these Parisians claim any special authority in French repertoire? The decade-old ensemble was a little cool, especially to ears acclimated to the Quartetto Italiano's landmark recording. Despite the frequent and sudden changing of tempo, expressivity was turned down a notch or two. It was as if the Modigliani players were declaring other interpretations overly sentimental. On tone, too, they offered something different from what we're used to hearing in these parts: a sound that is naturalistic rather than ultrarefined.
Tone was used to great emotional effect in the encore, a Schubert Minuet in D Minor (D. 89, not part of any of his full string quartets). In four or five minutes, here's a piece that explains what makes Schubert so cunning. Hung on the framework of a simple dance, the tunes go down sweet. But the harmonies are slippery, and at various points the music is quite profound. When the Modigliani layered graininess to the string sound, it added a dire edge.
An exceptional sheen was granted to parts of Schumann's String Quartet in A Major, Opus 41, No. 3, where introspection was a strong suit. The piece can be emotionally oblique. But the quartet took the long view: A repeated dotted rhythm in the third movement built a tension broken in the fourth by catching Schumann at his most ebullient.