28th January 2018 – Programme Notes for Changed Programme

Programme notes by Helen Simpson,  Guy Richardson and Chris Darwin

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Trio in G for Flute, Bassoon and Piano WoO 37 (c.1786)

Thema  Andante con Variazioni

In case you’re wondering what on earth WoO stands for, it is Werke  ohne Opuszahl  ( works without opus number).  Beethoven’s unpublished works or those to which he gave no opus  number were listed in a catalogue prepared in 1955 by Georg Kinsky a German musicologist and completed after the latter’s death by Hans Halm, a State Music librarian.

This Trio was written probably in 1786 when  Beethoven was only 15 and was found amongst his papers after his death and then published. It was written for Count von Westerholt who played bassoon, his pianist daughter to whom Beethoven was giving lessons, and his son who played flute, so very much a family occasion!

The first movement opens with a falling octave and the announcement of the first theme. This is followed by the second theme on piano featuring offbeat rhythms, something Beethoven would develop in his mature works with thrilling and dynamic effect, anticipating the rhythms of jazz and later rock music.

The development features a striking move into the minor and a pensive passage on the bassoon leads into the recapitulation. A decisive cadence closes the movement.

The bassoon states the gentle theme of the Adagio. Triplet rhythms lead into a beautifully modulating passage, and in a mysterious transition, with long pensive notes on the bassoon and a  arpeggio on the piano, we are led into the third movement.

The cheerful  theme  undergoes seven variations : the first features offbeat rhythms starting delicately and becoming more robust. The second is marked by fast triplets on the bassoon, followed by the third with rather march like dotted figures on the flute and piano.  The fourth again focuses on the bassoon with its flowing triplets and piano accompaniment. Fast semiquavers open the fifth, piano dominating, then leading into light and graceful staccato notes on the flute. The sixth again has  a march like feel and carefree mood, while in the seventh we hear the theme return in its original form but now faster. This leads to a short coda, featuring delightful  flourishes on the piano.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Syrinx for solo Flute (1913)

As a child growing up in Paris Debussy had a somewhat unsettling time in the period of the Commune of 1871 when his father was imprisoned for revolutionary activities. However his music education gave Debussy purpose and early success as a pianist. His studies in music theory and composition soon overtook the Piano in importance and in 1883, aged 19 years he won the second Prix de Rome in composition.

Syrinx was written as incidental music to be played off-stage in “Psyche” a play by Gabriel Mourey. The free style of the flute solo portrays the pursuit of the nymph Syrinx by the God Pan. Syrinx in an effort to escape from Pan’s attention turns herself into a water reed. Pan cuts some reeds to make them into a set of pipes, thus killing his love. Originally the piece was called Flute de Pan . In 1927 it was finally published and named Syrinx.

Syrinx is a late piece in Debussy’s life, written only 5 years before his death. It is unconstrained by conventions of structure, tonality and rhythm and though it is notated in the standard way the listener’s impression is of a fluid, chromatic and emotionally charged piece. It could be improvised for all we know, if it was played off-stage as originally conceived. The chromatic quality destroys any clear tonality and in the 35 bars the emphasis is on whole tone scalic movement rather than major or minor tonality. The opening note Bb is the most important pitch, repeated frequently in two registers and often at the top of a falling sinuous phrase moving to Ab and Gb hence the “whole tone” identification.

This very short atmospheric and seemingly wayward piece works its way lower and lower in pitch and comes to an end with a final whole tone scale from B natural to Db. This is at the lower end of the Flute’s compass and demonstrates a very different colour from the opening phrase.

Poulenc Flute sonata programme note

Francis Poulenc (1899 – 1963)
Flute Sonata (1957)

Allegro malincolico
Cantilena: Assez lent
Presto giocoso

Poulenc came from two very contrasting backgrounds: that of the pious Roman Catholic family of his father, who was joint owner of a successful firm which manufactured pharmaceuticals, and that of his mother, a pianist and whose family had wide artistic interests. Poulenc attributed the contrasts in his nature to this background, and the critic Claude Rostand described him as ” half monk and half naughty boy”!
His father refused to let him attend a music college and so he received a conventional school education. His main musical education came from his piano teacher Ricardo Vines and later composer colleagues like Georges Auric and Erik Satie.

Poulenc wrote this sonata shortly after finishing his opera ‘Dialogues des Carmélites’. It was a commission from the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation and dedicated to the memory of this remarkable  woman (she died in 1953), who as well as being an accomplishes pianist, was a patron of  chamber music and helped establish its status in America, where orchestral music ruled. Her many commissions included Bartok’s 5th String Quartet and Britten’s Ist.

Poulenc’s sonata  was written for the flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal,  to whom he said  in relation to the commission ‘ I never knew her, so I think the piece is yours’. With the composer on the piano, they gave the first performance in June 1957 at the Strasbourg Music Festival.

The little flourish on the flute that opens the sonata becomes a crucial motif throughout the piece. After some development of the opening theme, complete with Poulenc’s characteristic and delightful shifts of harmony, the piano introduces a contrasting slower  section in a sterner mood. The opening returns, and after a new variation, the music calms down, preparing us for the central movement.

This opens with a serene and beautiful melody on the flute. After a more dramatic central section building to a climax, the opening theme returns, now calmer.

The Presto opens in a lively and playful mood, leading into a more lyrical theme and teasing hints of the motif we heard right at the beginning of the piece. After a dramatic pause and a moment of quiet reflection, the opening of the movement steals in and leads to a brief coda.

Henri  Dutilleux (1916-2013)
Sarabande et Cortège for Bassoon and Piano (1942)

Assez lent
Mouvement de marche

Dutilleux , who came from a very artistic and musical background, studied at the Douai Conservatory near Lille and then the Paris Conservatoire.  He didn’t write a large number of works, being severely self-critical, but these include two symphonies, a  concerto for cello and  one for violin, some chamber works, pieces for piano, some vocal works, a ballet and  some film scores.

He followed his own individual path and refused to be associated with any school of composers. He was very critical of the more radical developments in music such as serialism and rejected the dogma and authoritarianism associated with it. For this he was looked down on by the snobbish avant-garde and figures like Pierre Boulez refused to perform his works!

His own interests were wide and varied and some of his works reflect  his interest in jazz and the world of art – his orchestral piece for example ‘Timbres, espaces’  was inspired by Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’.

The Sarabande et Courtège was written as the first of a series of exam pieces he wrote for the Paris Conservatoire between 1942-50.

The Sarabande  ( defined as a slow stately dance in triple time) marked Assez lent, opens with a gentle steady paced theme. The tempo speeds up leading to a short bassoon cadenza, which in turn leads into a variation and development of the opening music.

After a brief silence we launch straight into the Courtège, marked Mouvement de marche. This is definitely not  a funereal  procession but one in an almost jaunty and slightly jazzy mood with a  staccato  bass figure on the piano and some swung rhythms on the bassoon.  We arrive at a long cadenza on the bassoon marked ‘freely’,  which begins slowly and gradually speeds up, leading to a very high note and the dramatic concluding bars.

Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826)
Trio in G minor, Op.63 for flute, bassoon and piano (1819)

Allegro moderato
Scherzo:  Allegro vivace
Shepherd’s lament: Andante espressivo
Finale: Allegro

Weber’s musician father had ambitions for his son to match the achievements of the husband of Constanza Weber, Carl’s cousin. Though no Mozart, Carl Weber had an extensive and diverse influence over musical life at the start of the Romantic period. Wagner, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Mahler, Glinka, Stravinsky, Berlioz and Debussy admired his orchestral and operatic writing, and, as a conductor, he introduced sectional rehearsals and transformed the conductor’s role from mere time-beater to one who moulds the performance. His huge hands helped him become a formidable pianist, and some of his chords “cannot be played by normal human beings” (Harold Schonberg).

As a composer, he was precocious: an opera he wrote aged 14 was produced in Freiburg, Vienna, Prague, and Saint Petersburg, and four years later in 1804 he was appointed Director of the Breslau Opera. He was frustrated by his inability to reform that institution, and in 1806 while recuperating from an accidental dose of “engraver’s” (nitric) acid, he saw his reforms set aside and he resigned.   He became private secretary to the king’s brother in Württemberg. There his father embezzled huge sums and Carl himself fell heavily into debt; they were both imprisoned and then banished. Undeterred he became director of the Prague theatre, successfully carrying out there his previously-frustrated anti-Italian reforms.  In 1817 he moved to the Dresden theatre as director of the German repertoire (someone else did the Italian) and stayed there for the rest of his life.

Today’s trio was composed in the early years at Dresden as he was starting to compose his best known work, the opera Der Freischütz.  The trio was originally written for piano, flute and cello, probably in memory of convivial musical evenings in Prague with a couple of flute- and cello- playing friends.  An inauthentic substitution of violin for flute followed after Weber’s death, but the substitution of bassoon for cello is relatively recent.

The title of the third movement – The Shepherd’s Lament – alludes to a 1802 poem by Goethe that was frequently set to music.Andante espressivo Wilhelm Ehlers  The actual theme that Weber uses (illustrated) is lifted from a song written in 1802 by a minor composer Wilhelm Ehlers. The Finale contains at least two allusions to motifs in Der Freischutz.

See Chris Darwin’s Programme Notes for other works on his web page.

Coffee Concert 17th December 2017 – Zemlinsky Quartet – Review by Andrew Polmear

The Zemlinsky flew in from Prague to give this concert and flew home again afterwards. From the audience’s point of view it was worth every minute of their time. From the start they did everything right. They walked on stage looking pleased to be there. The violist, Petr Holman, spoke briefly, saying how pleased they were to come to Brighton, which was extraordinarily modest; we were the ones pleased that a world-famous quartet had come to play for us. He made no complaint about the partial failure of the heating system. They sat in an order that is uncommon, though not rare, of violin I, violin II, cello, viola, giving the viola a more prominent position than usual. Petr Holman exploited this to the full, turning to the audience whenever he had a solo, not just to point his instrument towards us but also to smile at us encouragingly. The other player who can disappear a bit is the second violin. Not here. Pter Střižek is not only visually the most dramatic performer in the quartet, rising off his seat when things get exciting, but he plays out as loudly as the leader. This made for some thrilling passages that would not have worked so well with a second violin content to play “second fiddle”. In fact, it was a quartet of equals, all of them great communicators with their audience.

Beethoven’s Opus 18 No. 1 was written in 1799 and is usually played in a somewhat classical style, a little restrained, a little elegant, albeit with some acknowledgement to the early hints of the revolution that Beethoven was initiating. The Zemlinsky were having none of this. They played it like the Romantic piece that it is: fierce, funny, passionate, lyrical. Their attack was tremendous, their dynamics were extreme, their tempi, in the fast movements, were very fast, their rubati were beautifully executed. At the same time, they played with extraordinary precision and great clarity so that the more classical moments in the piece were not swamped. A further word about the dynamics: Beethoven will sometimes ask his players to play fortissimo right to the end of a bar then drop to piano at the start of the next. It’s very hard to bring this off. The Zemlinsky do it by putting in a tiny break between the bars. It emphasises the change from loud to soft. It can sound mannered, but in their hands it was hardly noticeable and worked perfectly.

When he spoke Petr Holman said that the composer Kryštof Mařatka knew he was taking a risk, working on a piece Janáček had written for wind sextet, Mládi, and arranging it for string quartet. However, he didn’t think it was too great a risk because both groups are made up of instruments that are close to each other. I don’t see it that way at all. I would say that the strength of the string quartet is the intensity that comes from the similarity of the sounds, while the strength of a wind group comes from the difference between their sounds. Each wind instrument has its own personality and composers tend to write music that suits that personality. So my admiration for Mařatka is immense because he has produced an arrangement that is a triumph. The music conjures up the world of The Cunning Little Vixen, a woodland of extraordinary beauty, of humour and of a wistful stillness, but also of roughness, cruelty and disaster. It was full of characteristic Janáček intervals and clashes, of snatches of folk tunes repeated over and over. The Zemlinsky gave a performance of total commitment, following the swirling music through its changing moods. I cannot, at this moment, imagine it written for anything other than strings!

I have least to say about Schumann Opus 41 No. 3. It was as committed a performance, and as successful, as the other two pieces but it was the least surprising because everyone tries to play Schumann this way: packed with beauty, with fury, with lyricism, with humour. They captured all that, and were wonderful with the rhythmic contortions. Again the speeds were fast, especially the last movement. What a concert!

Coffee Concert 17th December 2017 – Zemlinsky Quartet – Review by Richard Amey

Welcome, the excitement of a Slavic string quartet! It’s exactly two years since the last one at the Coffee Concerts – then the Bennewitz Quartet, fellow Czechs of the Zemlinsky Quartet who today flew into the English cold from Prague, but not to warm us with cocoa and smooth, soft blankets.

The comparative shock of early-December snow in southern England was echoed in the sudden rawer wind, more bracing air, and shards of ice in the Zemlinskys’ sound and performing personality. And instead of an inclination to rush from the chill into cosiness, the audience wrapped tighter their scarves and held out their gloved hands for Beethoven, Robert Schumann and a 43-year-old Czech’s convincing recasting of Janáček wind music in warmer string clothing.

Since the December 2015 of the Bennewitz, the Coffee Concert strings diet has been the polish, refinement and inner probing of London-based north European quartets – the Elias, Heath and Castalian. Co-incidentally, exactly 12 months before the Bennewitz came the Poles of the Apollon Musagete. Is it something about December? Is it to set us up for winter? Is it part if the annual fuel allowance? Are we having our annual jab?

Not that Slav musicians lack polish, refinement or enlightening investigation. But something common to them seems to be a contrary aversion as performers to hiding individually behind their sound or  sublimating themselves to the collective whole. No sooner were the Zemlinskys onstage than violist Petr Holman was saying an almost cheery ‘Hello’ to the audienc, paying tribute to the series in its venue, and saying how they had been looking forward to playing in it.

I have this suspicion that Central European string players have proportionately spent more of their younger days and formative years playing on street corners, at local dances and in watering hostelries. I sense the edge, attack and spontaneity needed in those environments stays in their fiddle and cello cases afterwards and comes out next time with the instruments. There seems something different in their blood, and it’s not instinctive restraint.

Blond second violinist Petr Střižek felt no compulsion to sit still. Legs changing position, feet likewise, bouncing on his seat, almost rising to half-stand at some moments, extra flourishes of the bow after key short notes. All physical animations were a musical response but he was also concerned in driving and binding together he, viola and cello when they were in accompanying roles behind the first violin.

The broadly built Holman sat on our right-hand end – more often cello territory and the way the Elias, Heath and Castalians line up. He similarly flourished his bow but at key moments in the music for his viola, a darker and more subdued instrument, he turned it towards the audience to improve its audible prominence. Both men’s actions communicated something important was happening and drew the audience into not only their own artistry but that of the group. We became intrigued by the comparative behaviour of the other two members.

Holman’s viola and František Souček’s immersively concentrated first violin (on our extreme left) therefore conversed for us in stereo and the binding, bedrock sound of the cello, this time facing the audience instead of being side-on, spoke more openly and operated more centrally and integrally in the instrumental layout. Holman confirmed to me afterwards their layout was deliberate and is the quartet’s own non-dogmatic personal choice.

Beethoven was the first beneficiary if the Zemlinskys’ abiding verve, rigour and urgency. The Zemlinskys were awaking us with the composer’s first quartet and showed me, for one, that its high-quality content made this composer’s debut work in the genre no less auspicious or portentous than his first symphony, written only a year later. And signified Beethoven’s immediate mastery of two quite different worlds, the quartet intimately and confidingly demanding; the symphony externally and outwardly so.

The Zemlinskys’ energy champed at the bit in the Janáček ‘Youth’ Suite, in an all-Czech show where Kryštof Mařatka’s skill enabled the quartet restlessly to adopt and create their own textures of the golden youthful spirit and attitude, its ardour, tension and the sometimes crazed fury and urgency that sits so vividly in the wind sextet version.

Finally came Robert Schumann, the romantic on the morning’s programme, and here the Zemlinskys were ready to mark up the edginess and agitation in the score which other quartets might be less instinctively accentuate. Schumann’s was a disturbed mind and a deeply-wrought heart liberated by music. As with Smetana and Janáček, Slavic quartets are familiar with patients with awkward problems. They help us understand.

Zemlinsky Quartet: it’s another group name chosen in honour of an interesting and rewarding composer, not Czech but Austrian, admired by Brahms, and one I have heard and know I should investigate. Thanks for the prompt, gentlemen!

17th December 2017 – Zemlinsky Quartet – Programme notes by Chris Darwin

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1826) String Quartet in F Op 18 No 1 (1799)
Allegro con brio
Adagio affettuoso ed appasionato
Scherzo. Allegro molto


Beethoven was in his late 20s and living in Vienna when he wrote his six Op 18 string quartets. Uneducated (‘I do everything badly except compose’), rough-mannered, but with an alluringly intense personality and undoubted musical genius, he had managed to secure the patronage, both as composer and pianist, of Vienna’s cosmopolitan aristocracy. Chamber music was an important part of their diet, and Beethoven composed piano trios (Op 1) and string trios (Op 9), violin sonatas (Op 12) and piano sonatas (Ops 2, 10 & 14) before publishing in the ‘serious’ medium of the string quartet.


The great success of his three Op 9 string trios, published in 1798, encouraged him to accept a commission from Count Lobkowitz for six quartets.  As models he had Mozart, who had died the year that Beethoven arrived in Vienna from Bonn, and Haydn, from whom Beethoven (“the Great Mogul” as Haydn called him) had briefly had lessons in composition. Whilst their influence is undeniable, Beethoven in these ‘early’ (he was after all 29) chamber works already has his own voice, with tantalising seeds of his later styles clearly apparent.  At the same time as commissioning Beethoven, Lobkowitz had also commissioned 6 quartets from Haydn.  Perhaps recognising the quality of Beethoven’s works, and not wishing to subject himself in Viennese soirées to a direct comparison with his erstwhile pupil, Haydn only wrote two of the requested six quartets (Op 77) and completed no more quartets in his lifetime.


opening phrase of the Allegro con brio

(Op 3) String Trio's Adagio

The striking opening phrase of the Allegro con brio (illustrated) is a speeded-up version of the opening of an earlier (Op 3) String Trio’s Adagio (illustrated).  Its simple, easily recognisable shape helps the listener follow the upcoming complex contrapuntal writing – perhaps a cunning ploy by Beethoven to help win over his audiences to this revolutionary music.


The burial vault scene in Romeo & Juliet is known to have provided the inspiration for the extraordinarily dramatic slow movement.  The long melodic line of the opening, and indeed the dramatic model for the movement as a whole, perhaps benefitted from the lessons in vocal composition that Beethoven was having at that time from Salieri.  However, no-one but Beethoven could have written this movement.  Unprecedented gestures such as the unbearably long silences building to the final climax are pure Beethoven at his most daring.


The Scherzo is no comfort after the death throes of the Adagio, with its odd phrase-lengths and swerving harmonies – especially taxing for the first violin in the Trio.


Beethoven certainly confirms his contrapuntal credentials in the

tumbling triplets

triumphant final Allegro.  The tumbling triplets of its opening (illustrated) are again an echo of Op 9 no 3 Prestoan earlier String Trio (Op 9 no 3 Presto; illustrated), and, like the opening of this quartet’s first movement, provide an easily recognisable motif for the listener as Beethoven plies us with fugal flourishes.


Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) ‘Mládí’ Suite for Wind Sextet (1924)
arr for String Quartet (2015) by Kryštof Mařatka (1972-)
Andante sostenuto
Allegro animato


Mládí (Youth) was written in the middle of Janáček’s immensely productive last decade.  His productivity had both political and personal roots: Czechoslovakia had become independent in 1918 and the previous year Janáček had met and fallen in love with the much younger Kamila Stösslová.  Kamila is explicitly associated with the gypsy femme fatale of his song cycle ‘The diary of one who disappeared’ (1917), as well as with the heroines of his operas ‘The Cunning Little Vixen’ (1922-3) and ‘The Makropoulos Affair’ (1923-5).


The wind sextet Mládí (Youth), along with his firstYouth, golden youth!' string quartet, was written around the same time as these operas, and shares with them the technique of shaping individual phrases to the prosody of the speaking voice.  The opening phrase captures the phrase ‘Mládí, zlaté mládí!’ (‘Youth, golden youth!’) and recurs throughout the work especially in the first and last movements.


The third movement borrows a theme from a shortMarch of the Blue Boys work Janáček composed earlier in 1924 for piccolo, bells and tambourine ‘March of the Blue Boys’, recalling his time as a chorister in the Old Brno Monastery.


Mládí’s first performance, in Brno, was given by teachers at the Conservatory there and was plagued by mechanical failure: the oboe had to effect an impromptu repair; he was more successful than the clarinettist who, because of a broken spring, could only pretend to play.   Janáček’s understandable anger abated a month later with a successful and popular performance in Prague by members of the Czech Philharmonic.

Kryštof Mařatka’s (2015) arrangement of the wind suite is dedicated to the Zemlinsky quartet. Here he comments on some of the problems: “Throughout my work, it was necessary to take care of the stylization, that is to say to the way to express the musical speech and to adapt it, if necessary, so that it is faithful to the composer’s specific writing style for string quartet;  this sometimes comes at the cost of modifying certain elements.  [For example,] in the 1st movement, a dramatic passage for solo horn is reinforced by successively adding to a cello solo the other instruments of the quartet, in unison and octave”.

Robert Schumann (1810-1856) String Quartet Op 41 No 3 (1842)

Andante espressivo – Allegro molto moderato
Assai agitato – Un poco adagio – Tempo risoluto
Adagio molto
Finale: Allegro molto vivace – Quasi Trio


Coming after his ‘Liederjahre’ of 1840 and the subsequent ‘Symphonic Year’ of 1841, 1842 was Schumann’s ‘Chamber Music Year’:  three string quartets, a piano quartet and the particularly successful piano quintet.   Such creativity may have been due to Schumann at last winning, in July 1840,  the protracted legal case in which his ex-teacher Friedrich Wieck, attempted to forbid him from marrying Wieck’s daughter Clara.  They were married on 12 September 1840, the day before Clara’s 21st birthday.


1842, however, did not start well for the Schumanns.  Robert accompanied Clara at the start of her concert tour of North Germany, but he tired of being in her shadow, returned home to Leipzig in a state of deep melancholy, and comforted himself with beer, champagne and, unable to compose, contrapuntal exercises.  Clara’s father spread an unfounded and malicious rumour that the Schumanns had separated.  However, in April Clara returned and Robert started a two-month study of the string quartets of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.  During June he wrote the first two of his own three quartets, the third following in July.  He dedicated them to his Leipzig friend and colleague Felix Mendelssohn.  The three quartets were first performed on September 13, for Clara’s birthday.  She thought them ‘new and, at the same time, lucid, finely worked and always in quartet idiom’  – a comment reflecting Schumann the critic’s own view that the ‘proper’ quartet style should avoid ‘symphonic furore’ and aim rather for a conversational tone in which ‘everyone has something to say’.


In Schumann’s third quartet his wonderful lyrical gift sings out to us, and we are fooled by his rhythmic playfulness. The brief introductory Andante openssighing, falling fifth with a sighing, falling fifth (*, illustrated).  It sets the mood and also opens the main Allegro and recurs throughout it in various guises.  Schumann’s rhythmic trickery pops up in the second subjectsecond subject of the Allegro of the Allegro (illustrated).  After a brief silence, the upper strings start their off-beat accompaniment just before the cello enters with the theme. Not only is this deceptive for the listener, but it is a notorious pratfall for the unwary amateur player.


Another rhythmic trick starts the second movementrhythmic trick starts the second movement (illustrated).  Here everyone enters on the last quaver of the bar, but the tune is tied over as if the first note were really the downbeat. The theme is a decorated descent over an interval of a fifth.  There follows a set of entertaining variations culminating in one of huge and relentless energy with the accent resolutely on the offbeat, dominated by leaps that rework the opening falling fifth.  A calming coda prepares us for the beautiful Adagio moltoAdagio molto (illustrated), whose opening theme is based on a rising figure that again embraces an interval of a fifth.  The serenity of this idea is twice challenged by a threatening transformation in the minor, but serenity prevails.


There are more rhythmic tricks in the Finale.  The rustic dotted theme starts with an accented up-beat which sounds like a down-beat as if the rustics are tipsy.  The movement is a Rondo with the opening episode alternating with a variety of others, including a “Quasi Trio” – compensation for the absence of a traditional Minuet/Scherzo & Trio movement.


Programme notes by Chris Darwin


See Chris Darwin’s Programme Notes for other works on his web page.

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.”


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!