Castalian Quartet : Our Second Annual Launch Concert, a review

Review of the Strings Attached Annual Concert, to launch the for 2012/13 series of Coffee Concerts. Brighton Dome Corn Exchange, Sunday 7 October 2012.

What joy to be walking down to the Dome on a sunny Sunday morning for the start of a new series of coffee concerts. And especially to be going to hear the Castalian Quartet who played so wonderfully at the Brighton Festival in May. The atmosphere in the lobby was more like a party than a concert (but with coffee not wine) but the news was mixed: the leader of the Castalian was away, her place taken by a deputy. How could that possibly work? It takes years for a quartet to gel and develop its own way of playing. And they were to tackle some demanding pieces including Beethoven’s opus 95, the last quartet of his middle period and nearer to a late quartet in mood.

They started with a Haydn – the last of the Tost quartets – and all doubts were removed: impeccable ensemble, passionate but delicate playing from all, but especially the stand-in leader, Daniel Pioro. They played as though they had been together for years. The other surprise was the viola player, Charlotte Bonneton. She sits in the place usually taken by the cellist. Because they were not playing in the round but on a conventional stage this put her opposite the first violinist, and closer to the audience than usual for the viola. As a result, we heard the viola part as never before. It helps that she has a big instrument and makes a big sound. It also helps that she holds her instrument high and plays with a dramatic style. But placing her up front did help her to bring out the viola part. And this was achieved without losing any of the cellist’s contribution: she’s too good a player to be sidelined anyway and the sonority of the cello sound would never be lost despite being placed further back.

Next they played the Beethoven, starting at a tremendous pace. At first I thought it was too fast – I couldn’t keep up with all those curious little figures in the inner parts – but once I caught up I was won over. This first movement is furious and painful and their playing hammered at your soul. The second movement is a much calmer affair, starting with a slow descending scale for solo cello. Every note was crafted with exquisite tenderness. The last two movements are furious again – I was asking myself how they who are so young can have suffered enough to know how to play like this. It sounds soppy when I write it but that’s the effect Beethoven has on you.

Then, unlike last year, we had an interval and could wander out into the gardens to recover before the Dvorak opus 61. It’s a tuneful whimsical piece that I found hard to adjust to after the Beethoven but they were so tuneful and whimsical with it that it was won round.

As before, Chris Darwin’s programme notes are the best ever and free, despite being almost worth the price of the ticket themselves. And the drinks party afterwards was a treat – we were all congratulating each other on being there, and then Andrew Comben congratulated us all further by saying that Strings Attached may seem only to be supporting the coffee concerts but in fact the organisation has a much wider effect in promoting chamber music in Brighton and Hove. Now I’m home and can’t get those opening bars of the Beethoven out of my head. I need someone to make me laugh – and who should be at the Dome tonight but Jenny Eclair…

Andrew Polmear


Note: Chris Darwin’s Programme Notes will be available on this website well before each concert, and are found by clicking on the work in the concert list on the Coffee Concert page.