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