Saturday, 1 June 2013

Brighton Festival, May 2013, Week 2 Part 1

Week 2 of the Brighton Festival for me began with two string quartets, the first being the Elias String Quartet.  This was the second of three concerts this year, with a further three planned for next year's Festival, forming a full cycle of Beethoven's String Quartets.  Unfortunately, I could only make one of their three concerts this year - the downside of such a full and attractive Festival programme - but I'm glad I made it to at least one.  In this second concert (Saturday 11 May, St George's Church, Kemp Town), they performed three quartets - the Quartet in D major, Op. 18 No.3 and the Quartet in F minor Op. 95, 'Quartetto serioso' formed the first half, and after the interval, they performed the Quartet in B flat major, Op. 130.  In all the concerts, they took the same approach of performing three quartets spread across Beethoven's output, rather than going for a chronological approach.  This certainly makes for a more interesting programme, and really helps highlight how far Beethoven took the form from the Haydn-esque early quartets to the mammoth and intense final quartets.  Op. 18 No. 3 was in fact the very first quartet he composed, and is beautifully lyrical and light, although there are some deeply touching moments, notably the end of the slow movement.  The Finale is a wild tarantella, full of energy, yet even here, Beethoven surprises by ending quietly.  The Elias Quartet set the tone for the whole performance, communicating with each other and the audience in an engaging and relaxed way.  The 'Quartetto serioso' which followed couldn't be more different, and the Elias Quartet once again impressed, communicating the tension, even violence, of this intense and dramatic work.  Throughout, Beethoven exploits shocking, sudden Neopolitan harmonic shifts, and the Finale promises no let up - until Beethoven throws off the tension with a sprightly, almost sarcastic coda.  After the interval we were treated to an equally accomplished performance of the massive Op. 130 Quartet.  They performed the quartet with its replacement Finale - Beethoven's original 'Grosse Fuge' was too challenging for audiences at the time, and Beethoven substituted a ligther, more positive end at the behest of his publisher.  As Sara Bittloch, the Elias Quartet's first violinist pointed out in her introduction to the work, it is almost as if after all the trauma and drama of the first five movements, Beethoven is saying 'What the hell, life goes on!'  What impressed me most about the Elias Quartet's performance was their obvious sense of enjoyment, but also the intimate and almost intuitive communication between the players, and with us, the audience.  Sad to have missed their other two instalments this year, but definitely looking forward to hearing more from them next year.

The Cavaleri Quartet formed in 2008, and have acquired numerous awards in the short time since then.  They chose an interesting programme for their lunchtime concert on Tuesday 14 May, with three works spanning exactly 100 years.  The oldest work, Frank Bridge's (1879-1941) Three Idylls, was composed in 1906, and Jonathan Harvey's (1939-2012) String Quartet No.3 in 1995, with Leos Janáček's String Quartet No. 2. 'Intimate Letters' from 1928.  Bridge's Three Idylls are perhaps more often performed than his string quartets, owing to his pupil Britten's use of the middle movement's material for his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge.  They are less challenging and perhaps more immediately accessible than the quartets, but no less interesting for that.  The opening Adagio molto espressivo is especially noteworthy, full of melancholy, with beautiful writing, especially for the viola, Bridge's own instrument.  The short second movement, and the final Allegro con moto both aquire a slightly jazzy flavour, almost Gershwin-esque.  Jonathan Harvey's String Quartet No. 3 by contrast is a much less easy listen, with its use of extended techniques and microtones, but definitely rewards the concentration required.  Harvey combines his ten 'themes' in varied juxtapositions, and stretches the four players to their limits.  The Cavaleri Quartet were in complete command of this challenging repertoire, and certainly held my attention throughout, fascinated to know where the music would go next.  They finished their programme with Janáček's String Quartet No. 2, 'Intimate Letters', often referred to as the composer's 'manifesto on love', inspired by his love for his young muse, Kamila Stösslová.  The viola has a prominent role in this work, especially the plaintive solo in the final Allegro, immediately after an almost shocking explosion from all four players, sul ponticello (playing right on the bridge, producing a harsh, glassy sound).  Viola player Ann Beilby excels here, producing a beautifully rich tone.  Great performances all round - this is certainly proving to be a golden age for the string quartet, with so many excellent young quartets on the scene.  Long may it continue.  

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