Apollon Musagète Quartet – the first Coffee Concert 2013 – 2014

The Brighton Dome Corn Exchange, 13 October 2013

Sunday morning in October, steady rain and about 300 people in the Corn Exchange for the first coffee concert of the series. Something serious must be going on. The first sight of the Corn Exchange was a disappointment; we were in the raked seating because the Corn Exchange was set up for the Comedy Festival and could not accommodate seating us in the round. But after that everything got better, even before the players came on. There were no chairs, just a stool on a platform for the cellist. And the players had provided their own stands, with elegant side extensions so that three or four sheets could be displayed at the same time. The stands were arranged in a straight row instead of the usual semicircle, so that the players faced straight into the audience. Then they came on. Everything about them confirmed their seriousness. Identical black suits, except that the cellist wore a waistcoat; identical cufflinks; the same shine on the patent leather shoes; just a hint of individuality in the hairstyles: both lower string players had long hair, held in place by different types of Alice band. They stood still until they had complete silence; then readied their instruments, again holding their positions for several seconds, before moving into the warmest, most sensitive rendering of those opening 18 bars of Mendelssohn’s opus 13 I have ever heard. All the attention given to their presentation now made sense as they showed the same seriousness in their playing. Their precision was extraordinary, their range of expression huge, without ever being showy. Some people still think of Mendelssohn as lightweight. This was the performance to put such nonsense completely to rest.

There is a lot more to say about their playing: their instruments blended perfectly together, their tempi seemed just right. At the bottom of it all was something the leader said afterwards: that they approach the piece with the aim of finding the essence in every bar. And that is how it felt. One example came in the second movement. After some particularly expressive writing Mendelssohn introduces a fugue which starts in the viola before being taken up by the other three players. To bring out the point that something different was happening they played the fugue without vibrato. It was like a blow to the stomach.

The other three pieces were Russian, starting with Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives. Prokofiev wrote 20 of these little pieces, each one based on the personality of a friend, as Elgar did in the Enigma Variations. It seems that Prokofiev had a lot more friends than Elgar and they were certainly more fun. More seriously, the contrast showed the extraordinary development in music over the 16 years between the two works. Incidentally, if you are still puzzling over the huge mutes the players used in the Prokofiev, they are practice mutes designed to give a much quieter sound than an performance mute, so as not to disturb the neighbours. The sound wasn’t just quieter, it was thrillingly different.

Stravinsky’s short Concertino was, at first hearing, an exciting work that starts with an almost jazz-like syncopation and moves through a variety of moods in just six minutes. But then came the Shostakovich fourth quartet; a work of searing melancholy mingled with humour and even gaiety, played with such understated feeling that at the end the audience behaved as though stunned. Had they ended with a showy piece we would have stood and cheered. But this was better, and they were right to decide against an encore.

Did the daring programming work? Absolutely. No-one in the audience had come along for an easy romp through the old favourites; and this quartet could have played Berio and we would have been with them.

Chris Darwin, who wrote the review of the Jubilee Quartet concert, wrote about the dead acoustic at this end of the Corn Exchange, where all four sides are curtained. For me in the front row there was no problem at all, but those further back confirmed that the lack of resonance was a problem, as did the players. They overcame it by playing more fully, and making notes longer than they would in a more resonant hall. I gather we’ll be back in the round in the centre of the hall for the next concert. There will be no problem with lack of resonance there.

Finally, speaking of Chris Darwin, it’s always a relief to find that he is writing the programme notes for another season. It’s like the relief one has, after being abroad for some time, coming back to find that George Alagiah is still reading the BBC news.

Andrew Polmear