Coffee Concert 26th November 2017 – Castalian Quartet – Review by Richard Amey, Worthing Herald

As a vastly contrasting interlude between intensely original late quartets by the world’s two quartet masters of the classical period, 18 French minutes of string effects-driven sound exploration into the atmosphere of night signalled exciting instinctive and intelligently programming by the Castalians.

The Coffee Concerters, alert and prepared by Chris Darwin’s ‘Origins of the Pieces’ brochure notes, appreciated the rewards of the excursion offered. Without my English-French pocket dictionary, and not seeing any translation offered, I did not realise ‘Ainsi’ meant ‘Thus’ until I got home. So I and my fellow non-Francophiles missed the fullest experience of Dutilleux’s accomplished and meticulous sound depiction of human hours after dark.

Never mind. What I derived was vivid enough and I will now gravitate all the more towards a second hearing of Dutilleux’s only quartet, equipped as I now am by the Castalians’ deftly executed commitment to the cause.

It’s fascinating that it was a Frenchman who set one of the 20th Century benchmarks in effective experimental string composition and in 1976 it came 150 years after Beethoven died. Would the German have written like Dutilleux, Boulez or Messiaen if alive in their century? Or, born 100 years later than his 1770, would he have written like Debussy and Ravel? Would he have needed to have been French to share that sensuality?

Imponderable, of course, not least because Beethoven, deaf, would probably not have made enough substantial contact with the language of the effects Dutilleux was using, to draw them into his own language. The Castalians’ petite violist, Charlotte Bonneton, from Grenoble, told me later, much as she enjoyed playing French music new to her, Ainsi la Nuit was recently chosen for their repertoire by lead violinist Sini Simonen – a Finn.

Simonen has been a Castalian for four years and in several ways it is she who makes them remarkable. She is so subtly, so minimally demonstrative physically during her playing. There is no discernable intention to protrude, display or court attention.

The modern catch-phrase is “There is no ‘I’ in team”. Underlined afterwards when fellow fiddler Daniel Roberts told me any one of their four players can individually take the lead [in creating tempo or momentum, mood or atmosphere], or that any individual’s instrumental sound can become the prescribed focus of the three other quartet members to elevate the performance. One of the striking results is their transparency of sound and texture they achieve.

This young quartet is growing closer to the hearts of the Coffee Concerters in the footsteps of Heath Quartet and the Elias before them. With the charcoal stick, pencil, brush or ambient benefits of harmonics, plucks and slides – all channelled alongside standard tricks of tremolo, ponticello and mutes towards his subject of Night in previous experimental dry-run pieces – Dutilleux’s perfected sound painting in the Castalians’ hands evoked many commonly felt feelings, sensations, notions, agitations, delights and fears.

The movements are Nocturne, Space Mirror, Litanies and Litanies II, Constellations, Nocturne II and Suspended Time.

In his Opus 132, Beethoven was heading towards his own long night and writing about it subconsciously as well as otherwise. The Castalians played the second of his five Late Quartets, in which Beethoven transcends the music not only his own age but of all eras. The reason I still feel unqualified to examine in detail any group’s performance of these works was voiced for me by Charlotte Bonneton in our chat, which confirmed my sense that, whether listening or performing, we commune with Beethoven’s intensified perception of life’s fundamental unanswerables.

Bonnetton said, “Yes, it can take a lifetime to understand fully this music, and probably needs even longer than that.” After a performance of late Beethoven, many of the things she listed her quartet as feeling coincided with what we do as listeners. And the culminating one she listed was ‘nourishment’. For spiritual reward, we need late Beethoven on our dinner plates!

After his rarified main opening utterance of his slow movement, his declared hymn of thanksgiving for deliverance from serious stomach illness – yet another great highlight moment in Beethoven, the music stirs into new life. I flashed a look across the quartet at this point and saw one small, gentle smile. It was Benneton’s. Darwin tells us, we have wine, coffee and spices to thank for this music – or rather the composer’s obedience to his doctor’s orders to banish them.

Heading up this excellent concert programme was Haydn. Not familiar Haydn, nor Esterhazy Court everyday Haydn, but The Father of the String Quartet in his 65th year. In his following final 12, strength wilting under the weight of large scale commissions, he completed only two more of his 69 quartets. And the Castalians gave us, with complete assurance, true Late Haydn. Just like his pupil Beethoven: consummate fresh originality, daring and wisdom, all borne of long mastery and a thirst for remaining alive.

The Castalians return on 25 February to play another of Haydn’s twilight-years Opus 76 (No 5 in D), plus Britten’s No 2, and they bring Simon Rowland-Jones as second violist for Brahms’ Quintet No 1 in F Op88. Rowland-Jones is two generations the Castalians’ senior but, says Roberts, “He’s in his 60s. We simply met and got on really well. We’ll be playing the Brahms together in Edinburgh just beforehand.”

I have located a second violist to play this work with my imaginary Quarzette Enchanté of Frenchwomen: it’s Hélène Clément of the Doric Quartet (how did I miss her?). So I just need a second violinist. Anybody got any ideas? Already recruited, sitting ready are Sarah Bitlloch (first violin, Elias Quartet), Charlotte Bonnetton (viola, Castalian) and Marie Bitlloch (cello, Elias). Or should they stand up to play – as do the Polish all-male Apollon Musagète?

Coffee Concert 26th November 2017 – Castalian Quartet – Review by Andrew Polmear

I’ve reviewed two previous concerts by the Castalian Quartet for Strings Attached. In 2012, with a different leader, there was the excitement of a new young quartet starting to make their way. In February 2017 I commented that they now had a distinctive style of their own, a style marked by freshness and clarity. Now such comments would be impertinent. They have matured into a major quartet that can adapt their playing to the demands of the music; and in this programme the demands were considerable.


They started with Haydn’s Opus 76 No.6. The opening notes were extraordinary: four notes, marked forte, then a pause; four notes, marked piano, then a pause; and so on for another eight repetitions. The touch was so delicate, so precise, so tender that they drew the audience in by this most undramatic of openings. And then, a few bars later, Haydn lets the first violin off the leash with running semiquavers; such a contrast with the understated opening. It’s easy to get Haydn wrong – either by being too restrained and missing the excitement; or by trying to instil too much drama and losing the delicacy. The Castalian do neither: exquisite phrasing captures the excitement while their delicacy gives the quieter moments a cut-glass elegance. Inevitably, in Haydn, a lot of this comes from the leader and Sini Simonen does it to perfection. But much of the success is because all players are playing as one: every phrase is caressed in the same way, vibrato is only used for specific emphasis, not as a routine, each player captures the changing moods in the same way. Such was the perfection that it was almost a relief when the timing came slightly unstuck in the difficult off-beat figure in the 3rd movement.


None of which was any preparation for the edgy challenge posed by the Dutilleux piece Ainsi la Nuit. It’s 17 minutes of intense conversation between four instruments in which the mood changes, sometimes animated, sometimes calm, and the range of which each instrument is capable is explored, sometimes in whispered harmonics, sometimes with an angry roar. Of the titles of the seven movements I was able to identify two with the music: the first Nocturne was dark, cold and lonely, while Constellations had an ethereal feel about it. The other five seemed more abstract to me: sounds and rhythms passed between the players to thrilling effect. Not a note seemed unnecessary or out of place. Christopher Graves, the cellist, said afterwards that there is a tune in there, but I didn’t spot it. The contrast with the Haydn could not have been greater: brilliant programming.


So to Beethoven Opus 132, one of the greatest works in the repertoire. It too opens with four notes, on the cello this time, played so slowly and quietly I couldn’t believe he wouldn’t run out of bow before he’d finished. Then, after eight bars, comes the first Allegro and this extraordinary work takes off. It’s a work full of stops and starts, and of changes of direction. The Castalian played it with such lyricism that the edges seemed smoothed, the angst diminished. It came across as, above all, tuneful, even if the tunes are sometimes just snatches rather than fully developed melodies. Perhaps it just seemed tuneful after the Dutilleux. I liked it, although it is the Haydn and the Dutilleux that I’ll be thinking about over the coming days.


The Castalian will return on February 25 with Haydn, Britten and Brahms. Excellent!

Coffee Concert 29th October 2017 – Fournier Trio – Review by Richard Amey, Worthing Herald

Coffee Concert tickets buyers can’t say they never go home without a free gift. Usually it’s one from the 20th Century, music they did not know and underestimated. Quite frequently it’s British, but never is it tat to toss in the wastepaper basket.

Another gift dropped into their palms on Sunday and it was Spanish – and I’d guess probably the first such Iberian bonus in the history of this series. Joaquín Turina’s music brought an inspirational start to this new Coffee Concerts season at their temporary home (until late 2018) at ACCA, where one-off venue practicalities this time meant the trio played on the floor instead of the stage.

Chris Darwin is a semi-professional quartet fiddler whose entertaining ‘origin of the pieces’ programme notes so enhance the Coffee Concerts. He told me that Turina’s music is quite familiar among quartets in his world, which makes it seem astonishing that it has taken most of this century for the first of it to arrive on the Coffee Concerts public menu.

Darwin writes that Conservatoire training set up Turina at Madrid, then Paris where he met Ravel, Franck, Debussy and Albeniz. But Turina, and we, have the First World War to thank for his return to Madrid (with Manuel de Falla) where, as suggested to him, he began to admit his nation’s popular music into his compositional bloodstream.

The result is uplifting, dance and song-infused, and engaging with its switches of tempo and mood. The sun and moon, the food and the wine, the opera house, street market, bullring and football stadium are rarely far away. And there are one or two Ravelian glints.

Its inclusion could only enrich audience perspective of the chamber music world they explore in the Coffee Concerts. It was unexpected enough but, adding surprise, the free gift came borne from the East. Check, above, the nationalities of Fournier Trio, who take their name from the celebrated 20th century French cellist, Pierre Fournier –  who taught this trio cellist’s own teacher during a concert and recording career in parallel to his fellow countryman, the more extrovert Paul Tortelier.

Tipped for breakthrough in a chamber music world now crammed with outstanding talent, Fournier Trio celebrate soon their 10th year.

They scarcely look old enough, although Far Eastern genes, as we know and envy, sustain for longer the illusion of youth. Each player has long hair in an individual tie-up. They carefully sit and wait a while after taking the stage before tuning up. They rather shyly leave the stage after each piece and do not expect second curtain calls. Ought we to have been sipping green tea, kneeling back on our haunches, and bowing back to them in gratitude? (Why not? It would still be classical music)

Ng is principal cello with London Philharmonic Orchestra, violinist Yu a member of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and Chang has won top piano prizes in Munich, Dublin and at Leeds. All have simultaneous solo careers.

They have recently recorded the Mendelssohn Trios, among which the D minor is a prince. Chang led strongly from the keyboard, as she did later Beethoven’s ‘Archduke’, and at times I was wanting more volume from Yu and Ng in both works. But their Mendelssohn – especially another of his suddenly vanishing fairy scherzo movements – unfailingly put extra smiles on us after the clocks had gone back.

Amid the music’s overall fleetness, the Fourniers maintained an effective and slightly teasing sense of understatement about the unsettled atmosphere the composer requests in the opening quick movement, in which they showed an intriguing sense of architectural proportion. Their finale cascaded along with Chang subserviently accompanied but all were dynamically as one in the emphatic coda.

Their ‘Archduke’? They forced into a possible polarisation in our personal responses to their omission of the repeat of the first movement exposition. Those who find this glorious movement of prime lyrical Beethoven too long stuck their thumbs up.

Those, me included, who have been patiently awaiting the reappearance of this work at the Coffee Concerts since 2006, and who crave the repeat and thereby the length, felt short-changed. Putting my own self-indulgence aside, I feel the exposition, where Beethoven lays on the table each of his ripe, tender, welcoming themes, needs a second hearing so that in the development which comes next, we derive fuller insight and pleasure from his explorations around those first ideas. The benefit of that is the richness we derive from his final recapping of the opening music and the surprises he may still then spring.

Omitting the repeat plunges the listener into much stranger-sounding territory, in which we are more likely to struggle to feel comfortably at home. And I sense, because the music is so amiable, affectionate and inviting, that comfortably at home is where Beethoven wants us to be. By indicating a repeat, that is what he calculates. And when was Beethoven ever the slave to the Classical period convention of first-movement repeats?

Yu* charmingly afterwards admitted the Fourniers felt they did not want to outstay their welcome by making that first movement ‘too long for everybody’. Maybe in their second 10 years, they will ease away some of that eastern reticence.

Richard Amey

*She told me they had been introduced to Turina’s music only very recently by a friend of hers who was in a group playing one of his Piano Quartets.

Next Coffee Concert at ACCA (Sundays, 11am, opposite Falmer Station): Castalian Quartet make the first of their season’s two ‘mini-residence’ appearances on November 26 having begun stepping towards joining the company of the CCs’ favourite young quartets.  Haydn, Opus 76 No 6 in Eb; Henri Dutilleux, Ainsi la nuit (is this the next free gift?); Beethoven’s late great No 15 in A minor Op132.

Coffee Concert 29th October 2017 – Fournier Trio – Review by Andrew Polmear

In autumn sunshine the campus at the University of Sussex was lovelier than ever, even if the traffic was snarled up as people tried to get to the stadium opposite. Despite the traffic the turnout for the concert seemed, without counting formally, to be at a record high, possibly because the Fournier Trio were to play two of the greatest piano trios in the repertoire.


Mendelssohn’s first trio (opus 49) is a work of unabashed joy. In the opening Allegro melodies flow one after the other, the mood changing from passionate to tender in just a few bars, then back to passionate, all joined together in one great flowing line. The Andante is more on the tender side, the Scherzo more mischievous, but the final Allegro assai appassionato is back to passion and joy. There was a gasp from the audience as the piece finished – a tribute to the expressive playing of the Trio. They matched Mendelssohn’s passion, not by playing particularly loudly nor by playing particularly fast, but by their intensity. I’ve heard the Florestan and Gould Trios play the piece, and both had their strengths, but neither seem to me to match the breathless excitement of this performance.


Turina’s trio No.2 was a good choice to follow the Mendelssohn. Although written almost 100 years later it didn’t seem to have advanced much in style, and it was considerably simpler to listen to, although not to play. It was a gentle romantic piece with a Spanish twist and calmed us down beautifully before the Beethoven.


Beethoven’s Archduke trio is a devil to play, not because it’s technically difficult, but because it keeps changing direction, as though he is constantly trying to wrong foot the players and the audience. The first movement opens with an expansive tune on the piano, then on violin then on cello. Whereas, for Mendelssohn, this would be just the start, after 20 bars Beethoven abandons it, and has the piano repeat a one-bar phrase of trills from the end of the original tune. There’s some delightful wandering about for 35 bars before Beethoven introduces a second theme, unrelated to the first. This lasts for 38 bars, before he’s off onto something new. And so it goes on. The moves between themes are wonderfully done, the episodes between the main melodies are fascinating in the way motifs are handed around between the three players, but it’s all very disturbing for players who have to decide how to play the piece. What’s the mood? My answer is that there is no mood. It’s like looking at abstract painting. It’s about colour and shape but it doesn’t paint a scene. So too, with Beethoven here, it’s the music itself that matters, not the mood that the music creates.


How did the Fournier handle this? By playing Beethoven the only way you can: by just playing the music. They revelled in the melodies when they came, they passed motifs backwards and forwards with real sensitivity. It was nothing like the way they had played the Mendelssohn, or the Turina. By seeming so at ease with the disturbing nature of the Archduke they made it OK; it seemed to make sense. They didn’t try to make it seem to be going somewhere, they just enjoyed it bar by bar. It was a triumph.


Not all of the Archduke is as potentially disconcerting as I have described. The Scherzo is quite joky in a quiet way – and how Chiao-Ying Chan managed to get that Steinway to play so quietly I don’t know. She seemed to have no trouble getting it to roar either, when appropriate. But jokiness doesn’t last long in Beethoven; soon ghosts are rising from the dead in 5 flats; very suitable two days before Hallowe’en. Again the playing was restrained, and so all the more effective. The Andante was played dolce just as Beethoven requested. And the final Allegro followed by Presto, where Beethoven is back to his spiky, awkward self, was played with such ease and understanding that we were able to enjoy the ‘abstract’ beauty of the musical writing without wondering where it was all going.


The Fournier are named after the great French cellist, Pierre Fournier, who was the teacher of the teacher of the Fournier’s cellist, Pei-Jee Ng. Fournier was a player of extraordinary elegance and sensitivity. I think he would have been pleased to have this Trio named after him.

Coffee Concert 19th March 2017 – Review by Richard Amey, Worthing Herald

What’s it like to be early middle-aged French, and needing to rehearse after breakfast then perform at 11am on a Sunday at a chamber music concert in an English university venue in front of 208 eagerly awaiting people? That’s the boat Continue reading “Coffee Concert 19th March 2017 – Review by Richard Amey, Worthing Herald”

Coffee Concert 19th March 2017 Part 2 – Review by Guy Richardson

Schubert Piano Trio No 2 in E flat major D.929

Having heard a performance two days previously of Schubert’s Piano Trio No 1 in B flat in Lewes, it was fascinating to her this, his second piano trio, a work I wasn’t familiar with. A lot of commentaries sing the praises of the B flat trio and are a little patronising about the E flat, even though Continue reading “Coffee Concert 19th March 2017 Part 2 – Review by Guy Richardson”