Coffee Concert 22nd November 2020 – The Gildas Quartet with Joanna MacGregor (piano) – Strings Attached Review by Andrew Polmear

This was a special day for members of Strings Attached. Some of us confess that we put on more interesting clothes than usual for a Sunday morning at home. We felt at one with that community of members whom we may not know by name but with whom we have shared so many moments of intimacy that they seem like friends. And now the concert is over we feel that the possibility of live music, sometime in the future, is a real one. It was our first live streamed concert, and if more have to be streamed it won’t be a disaster.

To start with the technical aspects: it was a triumph. A few people had difficulties but this reviewer found the sound quality and balance excellent – not easy to achieve in a concert which features quartet alone and then with piano. The lighting was perfect – a moody dark stage, back lit with blue, but with warm spotlights on each player. Camera angles were good too. We had the basic view of the whole stage, close-ups of one or two players at a time (even if the camera choice didn’t always shift to the player with the solo), and, above all, there was a camera behind the pianist so that we saw the keyboard better than had we been sitting in the auditorium. What a view this gave us of Joanna MacGregor’s playing; how she varied her hand position according to the sound she wanted. There was a wonderful passage in the fourth movement of the Shostakovich where she played plodding repeated chords as the tension slowly built, and the movement of her hands changed as the chords became more emphatic.

So, to the music. The Gildas were excellent, with lovely ensemble and expressive playing. Christopher Jones stands out as the charismatic leader but the others could all hold their own when given solos, as they often were in the Shostakovich. Together, the sounds they make blend as though made for each other.

Schubert’s Quartettsatz was tremendous. It was played with a driving sense of momentum; they revelled in the changes of mood from serenity to menace and back again.

The Haydn Opus 76 No.1 was, to my mind, less successful.  They attacked the first movement head on; it was vigorous and joyful. They captured the spirit of a Haydn who, after a lifetime of composing for the palace music room, had finally seen what music in a public concert hall (in London as it happens) could be like. What they lost was that essence of Haydn as steel in a velvet glove; the delicacy, the elegance with which he disguises the power of his music. They attacked the slow movement in the same way; lush, forceful, with tremendous vibrato and full pressure on the bow. Haydn marks it mezzo voce and with Haydn that really should be soft. The music is quite gentle, contemplative and sparsely written and it couldn’t cope with the Romantic interpretation they were giving it. The beauty of this movement comes from its gentle understatement. They had microphones only inches from their instruments and could have whispered and been heard.

They were more successful in the two final movements. The menuet was bouncing with life (though I found the leader’s rubati a bit overdone). And the final movement was suitably vigorous, so fast in fact, that the cellist couldn’t quite keep up in her triplet quaver runs – either that or she thought the others were going too fast and she tried to slow them down. Towards the end of this final movement Haydn surprises the listener with a change from the minor to the major key. Here I loved the way they slowed the tempi and played more quietly which, surprisingly, emphasised the fun Haydn was having.

The Shostakovich Piano Quintet was unforgettable. How fortunate we are that Joanna MacGregor is now Music Director of Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra and that we’ll be seeing more of her. She opened the piece with that huge piano solo. It was magisterial. Then, when the strings came in they played with a rich intensity that made their Haydn playing seem modest. And from then on she and the quartet played with an understanding of each other that was a joy – the tiniest rubato was done in just the same way by all five players.

This is a piece of alternating moods, from majestic to lonesome, from helter-skelter to nostalgic, from abstract to folksy, and they captured it all. The leader Christopher Jones had moments of gorgeous lyrical playing. Francesca Gilbert on viola had lovely solos in the second and fourth movements; it’s in the latter that she played that divine duet with the first violin against cello pizzicato acting as the rhythm section. But really it is unfair to pick out isolated moments. This was a piece played with total conviction by players who made it their own.

One thought on “Coffee Concert 22nd November 2020 – The Gildas Quartet with Joanna MacGregor (piano) – Strings Attached Review by Andrew Polmear”

  1. While live performance is outlawed, livestream of this quality will be a superb substitute. To have the majestic playing of Joanna MacGregor and the brilliance of the Gildas Quartet in my sitting room was such a treat.

    The Shostakovich will live long in the memory as a spectacular piece where the balance of the instruments was just spot on – so often not the case when a powerful pianist with a Steinway takes to the stage with a string ensemble.

    The sound engineers came up trumps as did those on camera. It was a privilege to be allowed up close to the performers . When, from an auditorium, does one see a pianist’s hands at such close quarters or those of the viola player when this beautiful instrument is given prominence ? Yesterday, we had just this.

    This was a splendid Sunday morning coffee concert – generously sponsored by Margaret and Andrew Polmear. Let there be more Sundays like this – until we can return to live music.

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