Coffee Concert 23rd February 2020 – Castalian Quartet – Strings Attached Review by Andrew Polmear

I’ve been reviewing concerts by the Castalian Quartet since 2012, and at least annually since 2017. Each time I write how much I like their playing and each time I say how they’ve grown since last time. And so it was today. All the usual things they do so well were there: they look good on stage, we warm to whatever Sini Simonen has to say because it so clearly comes straight from the heart, their ensemble is impeccable, each one of them seems to have their own musicality and their own voice but together they play as one.

They captured the restless, tortured genius of Schumann in his F major Quartet. The first movement swirled around us like the gale that was blowing outside. Every phrase rose and fell to sweep us off our feet. The second movement was tender and gentle, each voice speaking clearly in the calm but perfectly integrated with the others. I have to confess I found the third and fourth movements a bit fast. The breakneck speed of the Scherzo and of the Allegro made it hard to appreciate the complexities of the music with its syncopations, changes of mood, and changes of motif. But Schumann writes them as presto and molto vivace respectively so I don’t suppose he would agree with me. And they played them wonderfully, making light of the technical difficulties in the Scherzo as though they were just having fun.

Janáček’s first Quartet, The Kreutzer Sonata, is from another world. Sini spoke of the fact that, while it doesn’t portray the events described in Tolstoy’s novella, it captures the emotions felt by the woman who is murdered by her jealous husband. There’s reason to think it was the woman in the story that Janáček identified with. He wrote to Kamila Stösslová “I was imagining a poor woman, tormented and run down…”  For Sini it’s the woman’s emotions that are portrayed, especially her guilt. Her comments raise important questions about music: does it matter what was the source of the composer’s (or the player’s) inspiration? Is it not the reaction it creates in the listener that matters? Won’t those reactions be equally valid, but different, in different listeners? For me the torment of the piece is the husband’s torment; and indeed Tolstoy makes him the teller of his tale. The anguish, for me, is his jealousy, not her guilt.

But to get to the music: brief, jagged phrases jostle for our attention in the first movement, and become even more agitated in the second, interspersed with rare moments of calm. The agitation heightens in the third movement with more bars marked sul ponticello than any other piece I can think of (this asks the player to play as close as possible to the bridge to make a scratchy sound). Fingernails scratching on glass came to mind. And in the final movement the opening theme returns but more emphatic than before. There is a resolution but it is definitely not a happy one. I’ve heard this piece many times (it’s been played four times now in a Strings Attached concert which is more often than any other piece) but I’ve never been so moved as I was by this performance.

I wasn’t sure I could cope with Brahms B flat major quartet after that, but I was soon beguiled by its tunefulness, its richness and warmth. Brahms gives the best tunes to the viola and Charlotte Bonneton revelled in them. Her tone is always warm and full but here she excelled herself. Sini Simonen, by contrast, played as though wanting to be absorbed into the ensemble. She had some passages in the third movement of rapid arpeggio-like notes which she played so quietly you almost missed them. It was as though she was signalling that more important things were happening elsewhere, and they were. Now that’s real leadership.