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Imagine two small sculptures comprising sawings, chips and shavings swept up from under a carpenter’s bench, assembled in contrast and juxtaposition and placed on a plinth. Is contemplating this likely to make exhibition visitors more aware and appreciative of the invention and labour expended in creating their culture’s celebrated fully-finished wooden buildings and furniture?
The barely six minutes’ of Wolfgang Rihm’s dissonant two Fetzen (German for scraps or shreds) may have had the equivalent affect on Sunday’s audience. Workbench leftovers or misfits of recognisable string quartet language, now laid out and glued together came freshly to the ear in this concert after the aural hiaitus of the interval.
Eyebrows may have arched as pennies dropped. The least-known of the four prolific German-speaking composers on show, Rihm, in composing Fetzen No1 in 1999 and No 2 on 2002, beginning a series of eight Fetzen in all (a considerable workshop tidy-up – Mrs Rihm would have been pleased!), was trying to provoke reaction from his display of bits and pieces. The listener could decide if he was being imaginatively constructive, or merely musing pithily on a meagre selection of materials.
Each fragment made its own concentration of sound and atmosphere, the four parts of No 1 eventually evaporating into the air, those of No 2 making monosyllabic parting comments into the silence. Perhaps, four individuals around a conference table, quickly throwing in their own proposals, only to leave the room without debate.
Rihm is a ceaseless, sexagenarian, expressive, artistic questioner and challenger who could have chosen to be a painter or a poet. He looks jovial in many of his portraits in a way we don’t see Beethoven or Schumann, or even Haydn. We live in more loosened days of portraiture, I know. But even so, maybe Rihm was characteristically sharing an ironic joke or two with his publisher and us that he’d already shared around his working-day college in Karlsruhe.
In these universal days of darkening concern amid lost time, complacency and missed opportunity, this was concert programming for wellbeing! The new young Adelphi Quartet out of Salzburg’s Mozarteum University (had they heard Rihm speak there?) aimed to take us from frowns to smiles in this liberating first Coffee Concert for 18 pandemic-riven months.
It turned out they saw Haydn – surprise, surprise – as the frowner, and Beethoven as the first to brighten the atmosphere, and heavily ironically, given Beethoven’s sober intentions in his chosen F minor of Opus 95. Haydn, in Opus 20, is making Beethoven possible. He’s aware he’s burrowing into unexplored territory and altering the musical world. Beethoven is inheriting and inhabiting that territory, and is supremely confident.
And so, instead of a 20th century-style Haydn reveille of “Hi! Good morning all. Isn’t the sunshine great? Sit down. Have a double-chocolate croissant and let me pour you some coffee!” the Adelphi had us finding the master, his coffee extinguished, already deep in earnest, searching study. The Adelphi clipped short the grace notes and to further the sense of unsettlement and investigation, used hardly any strings vibrato – we now recognise that such gloss and pseudo warmth makes Haydn sound comfy and over-sophisticated, anaesthetising his depths, planing off his edges.
In other hands, playing Beethoven Opus 95 next would have intensified the house atmosphere so intensely people would have felt chained in. Instead, the four Adelphi having Haydn first plumbing doubts and uncertainties, their Beethoven placed equal weight on his inbuilt relaxations within the music. With Napoleon bombing of his Vienna enrageding Beethoven’s, the ‘Serioso’ Quartet’s sense of anger came quite contained, allowing the composer’s consoling lyricism to glow much less as though under a rain of railing. The two contrasting effects were more unified.
Then, after a glimpse of Rihm’s curtailed updated world, the arch-romantic Robert Schumann’s fevered euphoria, amid new marriage, poured forth in his fulsome and conscientious opening contribution to the string quartet repertoire. Here in Schumann’s No 1 was a welcome, less pre-occupied morning summary of the triple Haydn-Mozart-Beethoven influence on Schumann, plus that of his then personal acquaintance, Mendelssohn.
All in black, with collarless or stand-collar tops, The Adelphi adroitly introduced themselves with a calling card picturing them battling to a concert across snow-thick upland. The card seems to bear bullet-points of their whispering pianissimo, which delivers expressive and dynamic interpretative bonuses, and an approach avoiding not only melodramatic extremes but also the obvious and the time-honoured. We ocnstantly need great quartet music interpretation to continue wobbling like jelly, and not to solidify uniformly like meringue.
Richard Amey of the Worthing Herald and Brighton & Hove Independent