Borromini Quartet – The First Coffee Concert 2014 – 2015

The Corn Exchange, Brighton Dome, Sunday 26 October 2014

No concert is an island unto itself. This, the first in the 2014/15 series of coffee concerts in the Corn Exchange, came on the back of the concert by the Szymanowski Quartet at the end of the last series. In my review of that concert I bemoaned the fact that they played Haydn like Tchaikovsky. So I was especially looking forward to the Borromini Quartet since, as 18th century specialists, they seemed likely to be at the other end of the spectrum.

Things started extremely well. The quartet by Hoffstetter, still published by Peters as Haydn opus 3 No. 5, is a lightweight piece ideally suited to the Borromini style. With their gut strings and late baroque bows (except for the first violin) they played with exquisite delicacy and silky tone. The slow movement went especially well, never rising above piano – and a Borromini piano is very, very quiet. You were compelled to listen hard and it was lovely.

The Arriaga quartet No.1 fared less well. It’s a flamboyant piece and while the slow movement, again, was successful I wanted more robustness in the other movements. I was surprised to find markings of fortissimo and piano in the only edition available online. I didn’t feel they ever got above mezzoforte. Fortissimo is hard with a baroque bow that you are holding by the stick rather than the frog. Modern bows were already in use when the piece was written so it would have been authentic, and would have served them better, to have changed bows. Disappointment led to my being irritated by the odd failure of ensemble and difficulties with intonation, although there they had my sympathies. After just a few minutes their gut strings must have been awfully flat in the overheated and humid hall.

In the interval I detected an audience with reservations. They hadn’t heard any great music and they were feeling that the playing was all too much the same with little variation in dynamics and with phrasing that was too understated.

The second half started with Boccherini’s last quartet. A contemporary of Haydn he wrote in a style more Italian than Viennese. It was lively, unusual, but more interesting than overwhelming. But the breakthrough, for me, came with the Haydn opus 74 No.3. The playing was still silky smooth and delicate, which made for a lovely slow movement, but they did much more as well, bringing out the dynamic variations, the fluctuations of mood, the extraordinarily inventive writing. At the start of the last movement the first violin tore into the ‘galloping’ theme, putting some power into his playing for the first time, although the second violin was hard put to match him with her baroque bow and grip.

So where did that leave me? I favour authentic playing when the music calls for it, rather than because it’s historically correct. Here their style was perfectly suited to the Hofstetter and the Boccherini. But to play the Arriaga and the Haydn in a large hall before a large audience required a bigger sound. To return to where I began, I’m not calling for an interpretation that goes beyond what is there in the music. I’m just looking for playing that finds the drama in the piece as well as the elegance, and projects it to the back of the hall.


Andrew Polmear


Szymanowsky Quartet The Sixth and final Coffee Concert 2013-2014

The Corn Exchange,  Brighton Dome, Sunday March 16 2014   

Andrew Comben, who books the players for the coffee concert series, usually manages to choose players who are already in England, perhaps performing at the Wigmore Hall a day or two before or after their trip to Brighton. That wasn’t the case with the Szymanowski, who had flown in from Warsaw the morning of the concert. That may explain the slightly shaky start to Haydn Quartet Op. 33 No.1: the ensemble was wayward; the balance between the instruments was lopsided, the cello too heavy against very light tones from the violins; and a few fast passages were fluffed. They did settle down but I continued to have difficulties with their playing.

It was a very expressive reading of Haydn. The phrasing was beautifully crafted but at times too romantic for me; Haydn’s music is very much of his time and that was the eighteenth century. Playing it with too much expression strains the music beyond what it can bear. Similarly, the frequent changes of speed unsettled me. And above all, the players imposed little pauses between phrases, losing what is for me the glory of these quartets: long lines of exquisitely delicate music, always surprising the listener with changes of theme or key, while keeping everything rhythmical and understated, as though to say that everything was all right with the world. I have noticed that other Eastern European quartets play Haydn as the Szymanowski does, so it’s not right or wrong but a personal preference.

What didn’t work, for me, in the Haydn worked in spades in Szymanowsky’s Quartet No.2. This work plumbs many emotions but joy is not one of them: things are not all right in Szymanowski’s world. The first movement, muted throughout, is tender and achingly expressive, the second turbulent and disturbed, the third sombre and sad. I suspect that Szymanowski would have disapproved of my applying human emotions to a description of his music; he considered that “art stands above life, penetrates the essence of the universe”. But we have no other words to use. Now the quartet’s playing was quite wonderful, the balance perfect – those dark cello tones adding so much – the whispering lightness of the violins quite hair-raising. Such expressive playing made me feel that this was the only way to play this piece, every note was so convincing.

After the interval came the Dvorak G major quartet Op. 106. It’s a happier piece than the Szymanowski but it calls for playing that is just as expressive; and it was. If Dvorak has a weakness it is that he is prone to repeat a motif over and over again, like two tennis players, each at the back of the court, hitting the ball to and fro, waiting for an opening to emerge. The playing was so lyrical, at times tender, at times passionate, that for once I didn’t mind how long it went on.

I liked the way the Quartet looked; each man was clearly a character in his own right. They looked very at ease on stage, ready to enjoy what they were about to play. Friends behind me, however, commented that a trip to a barber, followed by a trip to a tailor, plus the purchase of a metronome, might have been a good idea. I was only prepared to agree about the metronome, and then only for Haydn. I would travel some way to hear them play anything from Beethoven onwards provided they play, and look, just as they do now.

Incidentally, that lovely encore was “Melody” by Myroslav Skoryk. Type ‘Skoryk’ into Youtube and you can see the piece played by the Szymanowsky Quartet themselves. 

Andrew Polmear




Trio Isimsiz – the Fifth Coffee Concert 2013 – 1204

The Corn Exchange, Brighton Dome, Sunday 23 February 2014


Odd programming, I thought, as I prepared myself for this concert. With over 200 years of piano trio writing why choose two pieces from the same country, written in practically the same year: the Haydn trio in D (Hob XV:24), and the Beethoven C minor Op 1, No.3? And why call themselves Isimsiz, which means ‘nameless’ in Turkish? The pianist is Turkish but ‘nameless’ seemed a bit short on imagination.

Well, it turned out that this trio is not short on imagination. The Haydn was played with delicacy, elegance, and precision. Every note and every line was exquisitely phrased. They captured what to me is the essence of Haydn: he explores to the limits the possibilities that arise from a simple opening theme (or two). He’s not (usually) probing the depths of the human soul, he’s probing the depths of what was possible musically. There is no dramatic gesture; instead there’s the intricacy of a beautifully constructed game of chess.  I find that immensely satisfying and always finish listening to a piece by Haydn with a smile. But not everyone finds that: a friend remarked in the interval that they’d found it ‘light-weight’. That’s a very interesting comment, and I think it comes from a “Romantic” viewpoint. Haydn was a product of the Age of Reason and he was not trying to express emotion. His dynamics range from very soft (pp) to very loud (ff) but he wouldn’t have wanted his music played too emphatically. It’s ‘light-weight’ in that sense but there’s nothing bland about the way he explores themes, key changes, changes of rhythm, and how he manages to return to where he started at the very moment when, after so much invention, you need the comfort of home.

So would the Isimsiz play the Beethoven in the same way? Absolutely not. Suddenly, everything was drama, emotion was to the fore. Changes of dynamics were violent, phrasing was intense, vibrato, which had been sparing in the Haydn, was everywhere. Double forte really was very loud, pianissimo very soft. On the page, the two pieces don’t look that different. Interpreted as they were by the Isimsiz they were worlds apart. Beethoven gained a huge amount from Haydn (although he was loath to admit it) but he used Haydn’s legacy for a completely different purpose: he reflected the age in which the French Revolution had already occurred, and he pointed to what would be called Romanticism. It was all about emotion.

I’ve never heard that point made, in a single concert, so clearly, so musically, as the Isimsiz made it. Brilliant programming!

The Schubert B flat trio is a glorious work and the Isimsiz did justice to it. I don’t have so much to say about it because it’s not so open to different interpretations. The joyous bits were joyful, the slow movement achingly beautiful, the minuet appropriately mischievous…  I was very interested in something the violinist, Pablo Benedi, said afterwards: “usually when we play it, it comes out more serious. Today it came out more joyful”. That captures something of the excitement of live performance; even the players don’t know how it’s going to turn out on the night.


The Ruisi Quartet with Finlay Bain (horn), Sophie Robertshaw (bassoon), Elaine Ruby (clarinet) and Rodrigo Moro Martin (bass) – The fourth Coffee Concert 2013 – 2014

Brighton Dome Corn Exchange, Sunday January 19, 2014

Sunshine, no wind, and a new young quartet, whose leader is still a Masters student at the Royal College of Music – and he looks the oldest of the four. So how does the next generation play Haydn? Somewhere between baroque and romantic; if anything nearer the baroque. They used little vibrato, and played unslurred notes in a detached ‘baroque’ way. But they followed Haydn’s dynamics which are not baroque at all. So, in the first movement, they brought out the forte that Haydn requested for the tumultuous second theme against a background of mezzo forte and piano.

Haydn’s opus 20 No.2 was written in 1772, only 22 years after the death of Bach and 27 years before Beethoven’s opus 18 quartets. So it may well be historically correct to play it this way. The more important question, however, is, did it work? Yes, I think it did. The lack of vibrato brought out the stillness and sparseness of the piece, above all in the cello solo at the start of the second movement. In this they were aided by the Corn Exchange acoustic. When empty it’s a nightmare for the players, as the quartet found when they practiced earlier in the morning, but with an audience it becomes resonant, warm but with no fudge: every sniff can be heard. So this sparse way of playing sounded even more austere than usual. If I had to chose one way of playing Haydn I don’t think this would be it – I like a more lyrical flowing style – but I’m pleased to have heard this quartet and feel they brought out new aspects of the piece. They also coped with the considerable technical difficulties, although am I right to say they came apart for a moment in the extraordinarily difficult fugue that is the last movement?

After the interval the Ruisi were joined by other students of the Royal College of Music for Schubert’s Octet. This hasn’t in the past been a favourite of mine: I’ve heard it played too often where the strings have been swamped by the wind and brass. This performance was a revelation. The clarinet set an opening mood of delicacy that characterised the whole performance. Strings, wind and horn blended together with an intimacy that was exquisite. All eight players phrased as though they had been playing together all their lives. In fact they achieved this on just three rehearsals. Joy and anguish, tenderness and high spirits, they were all there in this understated, refined, masterly performance.

Andrew Polmear


The Heath Quartet – The Third Coffee Concert 2013-2014

Brighton Dome Corn Exchange, Sunday 15 December 2013

For this concert we were back in the round in the Corn Exchange, and back to the Heath Quartet. The warmth of the welcome for them at the start of the concert showed how pleased the Brighton audience was to see them again. Was it only three years since they first played here as Quartet in Residence? Then they seemed young and extraordinarily talented. Every year since they have grown in stature. Today’s performance was stunningly good. Their ensemble is impeccable; it’s interesting that they look at each other more than most quartets. Their sense of rhythm is unwavering, their intonation spot-on. But above all is the expressiveness of their playing: lyrical and tempestuous, gentle and explosive. Beethoven often asks for a change of mood that extreme in a single phrase and the Heath can deliver it. They make no attempt to find some new interpretation in well-known works. They rely on conveying what the composer intended. Schubert in the Quartettsatz and Beethoven in the second Razumovsky were very specific about how they wanted the music played, and the Heath delivered it in spades. What  made it seem as though we were hearing the works afresh was that they brought such brio to the fast passages (and they did play them fast) and such delicacy to the slow ones. And they move between these moods seamlessly.

But for me the event of the morning was Tippett’s third quartet. Listening on disc, I had found it hard to get a handle on this work. It’s so full of skewed rhythms and skewed tunes that the listener is constantly thrown off balance. And when those already difficult passages are combined into a fugue at a furious speed, it can be confusing. This morning, live, there was no confusion. Each player brought out the sense of each passage and wove it into the fabric of the music in a way that made it all clear. Movements varied from boisterous to lyrical to folksy to sombre and back to boisterous. It’s one of the great quartets of the 20th century; at least, that’s how it felt this morning.

Andrew Polmear

(Sent from my iPad in departure lounge, Heathrow)

Rachel Podger: Baroque violin recital – the second Coffee Concert 2013 – 2014 a second review

The Brighton Dome Corn Exchange, 10 November 2013

Children and young people from ages 8-25 can now listen and watch chamber music for no charge in the Brighton Coffee Concerts.  The series joint organisers Strings Attached have been accepted into the CAVATINA scheme that makes available a limited number of free seats at Coffee Concerts in the series.

Ticket booking information is available from and by emailing the Strings Attached membership secretary. The free seats commence on December  15 when the remarkably popular Heath Quartet return to The Corn Exchange and Dome to play Schubert’s electrifying Quartettsatz in C minor, Sir Michael Tippet’s  fourth quartet and Beethoven’s eighth,  his Razumovsky in E Minor.

The news of this breakthrough in concert access for youngsters came at the Coffee Concert given by The Dome in association with Strings Attached and, on this special date within its 2013 programme, the Brighton Early Music Festival. It featured one of the British world stars of period violin playing, Rachel Podger.

She has attracted a string of awards and achievements after completing education in Germany and Guildhall School of Music & Drama and joining The Palladian Ensemble and Florilegium. Already quickly under her belt were the leadership of crack Baroque and Classical period ensemble The English Concert (1997-2000) and a guest directorship of two other world-fronting outfits, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and The Academy of Ancient Music.

Abroad have come other guest directorships in Poland, Holland and the US, plus award-garnering recordings, chair-holding memberships of The Royal Academy of Music and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and she artistically directs her own Breckon Baroque Festival. Some career already, and she scarcely looks a day older than 30.

All smiles and information, she graced another in-the-round seated Corn Exchange audience in which Brighton Early Music Festival fans joined hands with Coffee Concert ones. Matching her profusion of golden hair were a cream top with gathered cuffs a-glitter, a long golden silk skirt, and exotic bejewelled Egyptian-style sandals.

It was a concentrated programme of music from JS Bach and his contemporary stars of the violin and its music − fellow German, Johann Georg Pisendel (a solo Sonata); the Italians, Guiseppe Tartini (Sonatas in B minor and A minor) and Nicola Matteis; a Swede, Johan Helmich Roman ( an essay  or experiment); and the Austrian, Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber.

The music was all from her forthcoming 2014 solo disc, The Guardian Angel, which was the published title of her closing Passacaglia by Biber.

She comprehensively and engagingly introduced each piece. Fresh from giving a masterclass the previous evening at Brighton College on the BREMF programme, she made it so easy to enjoy nearly two hours in her illuminating company in what was an experience akin to a richly informative and instructive domestic entertainment.

The daughter of a flautist, it was her father practising Bach’s A minor Partita for the wind instrument that aroused her curiosity and realisation that she could make her own solo string arrangement of it in the more suitable key of G minor. This she played after giving her own DIY suite of short Matteis dances, airs and preludes, whose spontenaiety and individual inventiveness were characteristic of this composer who extended violin technique, Podger told us, during the reign of England’s Charles II.

The closing Biber, also in G minor, comprised a downward, four-note bass of primary simplicity repeated 67 times, according to one of her students blessed with the concentration to count all the way through. Podger’s introductory words came with a demonstration, of the bass part, which meant we heard it a 68th.

We were in the delightful hands of a world expert with more than enough charm, enthusiasm and sense of fun to make her audience heartily seek out her next concert or broadcast performance.


Richard Amey

republished with permission from The Worthing Herald