Coffee Concert 21st October 2018 – Marmen Quartet – Review by Andrew Polmear

What joy to be restarting another coffee concert series, on an unusually warm October morning with golden leaves falling in bright sunshine. The Marmen Quartet is new to us, having formed as recently as 2013 at the Royal College of Music. They gave an extraordinary concert.

They sit with the violist adjacent to the audience and the cellist between her and the second violin. I like this arrangement. The cello is sufficiently different from the other strings to have no difficulty making itself heard, whereas we really benefit from having the violist in a more prominent position. I don’t think it makes her louder, her sound holes are turned away from the audience, but she’s more visible and so we are more aware of her and her sound. And that sound is lovely: warm and rich but with the power to be rough and passionate when required; I’ve never heard a viola sul ponticello as harsh as hers in the Janacek. Indeed, all the players are fine; glorious expressive playing from the leader, who really does lead, excellent support from the second violin, and a tremendous range of expression from the cellist who revels in the low power of his instrument but can also deliver fast precise runs at the quietest whisper imaginable. I like the way they move too. Gone are the days when players were taught not to sway about. This quartet moves with the music in a completely unaffected way that helps it to project to the audience.

But what about the music? They showed emphatically that every movement of Haydn’s Opus 74 No.1 has its own character: the first is exuberant, the second thoughtful and tender, the third boisterous with a section where they suddenly play on tiptoes, and the fourth a variety of moods at breakneck speed. Some bars from the end they suddenly paused and stared at each other like gladiators before roaring back into the triumphal theme. This was not an authentic way of playing Haydn, it was more expressive than most with plenty of lovely touches of rubato, but I thought it was a triumph. It was a performance with total respect for the music. They didn’t try to do something that wasn’t in the score, even if what they did might have been too outgoing for Haydn’s day.

I was prepared for a total contrast with Janacek’s Kreutzer Sonata. Musically it is a contrast; as Johannes Marmen said in his short talk, Haydn laid down the rules and worked within them, Janacek broke them. But I was more struck by the similarities between them. As played by the Marmen they were both pieces with well defined moods, even if the mood of the Janacek – anguish, longing, terror – is far removed from the moods of the Haydn. I’ve always been undecided how far to take the idea that Janacek was following in detail the story of the man who murdered his wife. Do those passages of fast repeated notes signify the train’s wheels? Do those passages of quiet foreboding signal the husband approaching the house? I prefer to accept that the mood of the piece derives from Tolstoy’s story but not to treat it like film music. The mood is one of impending, then actual disaster; every lush tune is laced with poison, every moment of quiet tenderness is doomed to be interrupted. I know this quartet well but I was hearing it as for the first time. I have never heard it played with such intensity.

The great contrast was between the first half and the Beethoven Opus 131 which followed the interval. I don’t think of the Beethoven as having a mood. It doesn’t express human emotions. It speaks to us at a deeper level. It puts us in touch with the sublime. It does this not through tunes but through patterns of notes, of rhythms, of changes of volume. The Marmen made it all so clear that the miracle of Beethoven’s genius shone for all to hear. There’s really nothing more to say.

Andrew Polmear