I’ve written about the Castalian as recently as November 2017 after their last coffee concert. All the things I liked then are More
Coffee Concert: Amy Harman (bassoon), Adam Walker (flute), James Baillieu (piano) at Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, Sussex University, Sunday 28 January 2018 (11am).
Beethoven, Trio in G major WoO37 (c1786); Debussy, Syrinx for solo Flute(1913); Poulenc, Flute Sonata (1957); Dutilleux, Sarabande et Cortege or bassoon and piano (1942); Weber, Trio in G minor Op63 for Flute, Cello and Piano (1819) arr for flute, bassoon and piano.
The violin is the staple caffeine of the Coffee Concerts More
Amy Harman, bassoon, Adam Walker, flute, James Baillieu, piano
I was looking forward to this concert with mixed feelings. Half the concert was to be not chamber music but recital: flute, or flute and piano, or bassoon and piano, rather than trios. And the combination of flute, bassoon and piano is not one made in heaven More
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!
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!
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.”