Anyone heading for the Attenborough Centre this Sunday looking forward to the Castalian Quartet playing some old favourites – Haydn, Elgar and Brahms – would have been disappointed. A notice in the foyer warned that Daniel Roberts, second violin, was unable to play (a trapped nerve rendered him unable to lift his left arm) and that changes to the programme would be necessary. As it turned out we still got the Brahms piano quintet Opus 34, thanks to the excellent Benjamin Baker on second violin, but instead of Haydn and Elgar we heard Schubert’s string trio in B flat D471, Mozart’s duo for violin and viola in G major K423, and Beethoven’s string trio in C minor opus 9 No. 3. This was a programme put together at two days’ notice, which meant they had no real rehearsal time. It was a lesson in how to turn a disaster into a triumph.
Andrew Comben set the scene by stressing how creative the players had been in finding a solution at short notice. Then the leader, Sini Simonen, spoke movingly about how bereft they felt without Daniel, how playing as a trio was a completely different experience from playing as a quartet, and how much she loved the Schubert trio. Written when Schubert was only 19 and comprising just one movement, she felt it was perfect, “like a strawberry”. She spoke with such modesty, such passion, such love of the music that even those of us who couldn’t see it as strawberry-like felt privileged that she shared this analogy with us.
Then they played. The Schubert is a lovely piece, full of tender lyricism. How different it is from a quartet. Schubert is hard to bring off at the best of times; the playing has to be so expressive but restrained, so delicate and precise. And in a trio the players are much more exposed, there is no great wall of sound in which to take refuge. What joy to hear each player revel in the challenge; Sini’s gentle lyricism, Charlotte Bonneton’s warm, rich viola sound, Christopher Graves’ secure, masterly cello playing.
Then Sini and Charlotte played the Mozart duo. The first thing to say is what a difference it makes that the players stood to play. It makes you realise that playing involves the whole body, not just the arms and fingers. It helps that both players move in an expressive way that works with the music. The first movement is very concerto-like and they played it with real attack. The second movement, adagio, was a tender conversation between the two players, like love-making at times. And the third movement was more dance-like, even like galloping horses, played with tremendous élan and bounce. Duos are not like quartets, not even like trios. We were hearing these players as soloists. Marvellous.
Introducing the Beethoven, Sini said she’d contacted the others to say she had always wanted to play this piece but that it was really hard. Then they played it together and she realised it was more than hard. It has its technical difficulties (especially for a trio playing without rehearsal) but, even more than that, it requires the players to plumb the depths of emotion. Like all of Beethoven’s C minor works, to Sini it contained deep emotions from love to rage; she felt that the great existential questions of life were being posed. Then they played and we felt Beethoven’s ability to bypass our thinking brains and reach deep into our soul: the first movement is a kaleidoscope of varying moods, the second is tender and reflective, the third is a galloping race to the finish and the fourth is quite skittish, even humorous. For me it was the greatest achievement of the concert.
After the interval we were treated to the Brahms piano quintet as planned. The first movement is a great cathedral of sound, especially after the duo and trios of the first half. There are huge Brahmsian tunes, with all the usual subtleties that Brahms loved. The second movement has an enchanting, halting theme, the third roars along, as does the marvellous final movement. The playing was full-on, as Brahms needs to be, and was wonderful, but I was so bowled over by the more intimate first half of the concert that I was less moved than I would have been in other circumstances. There’s also the problem of where to place the piano. Here it was behind the string players so that Daniel Lebhardt was hidden to those of us in the front few rows. The balance of sound was fine, but visually the string players dominated and that did not give me, at least, the feeling that he was as important as them, even though musically his contribution is as big as anyone’s.
What made this concert such a rewarding experience? It wasn’t just the wonderful music and playing, it was the way the players shared with us their upset, their danger, their excitement. Before starting the Beethoven Sini said “wish us luck”. Their triumph became our triumph. But even so, we wish Daniel Roberts a speedy recovery: there is a completeness to string quartet playing that explains why so many of the great composers wrote some of their best works for those four players.