I’ve written about the Castalian as recently as November 2017 after their last coffee concert. All the things I liked then are still there: impeccable ensemble and intonation, a lovely blending of the sound of the four instruments, players who feel the music together and who play as one. In November they played Haydn’s Opus 76 No. 6. I’d been especially struck by the exquisite phrasing of Sini Simonen on 1st violin. Well, she was doing it again here in Opus 76 No. 5. Every phrase was perfectly shaped, every note given just the right weight. And it’s not just the leader of course. The first movement of the Haydn falls into four-bar phrases. Sini pauses, almost imperceptibly, at the end of each phrase, and the other three pause with her. The two men don’t look up but Charlotte Bonneton on viola does, checking the movement of Sini’s bow for an moment. Without that glance I don’t think I would have been aware of what they were doing, so subtle is that tiny breath. I loved their tempi too: quite slow in the first movement, achingly slow in the second, gentle in the minuet then outrageously fast in the last movement. Yes, I love the way they play Haydn!
Britten’s second quartet could not have been a greater contrast. I’ve always thought of it as “difficult”, that is, difficult for the listener, let alone for the players. The Castalian played it with such understanding, such commitment, such clarity that I didn’t find it difficult at all; at least, not difficult to understand. It remains difficult to cope with, however, because the emotions are so intense, the changes of mood so fast. I find Britten’s operas much more approachable, and it was a relief to find such strong echoes here of Peter Grimes, written just before this piece, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that was to be written 15 years later. The slow quiet glissandi that open the Overture of Dream are here in this earlier work. Even more important, Britten uses characteristic intervals and harmonies that create a “sound world” that is specifically his. Once used to that world, the listener can move deeper into the work and try to follow Britten as he caresses us with tenderness, as in the opening bars which are like gentle waves on the seashore; then rages at the horror of life. Chris Darwin’s programme notes tell us that, just a few months before composing this quartet, Britten and Menuhin had visited Belsen and that Britten had said that that visit coloured everything he subsequently wrote. That horror is certainly present in this work. It’s all the more powerful because it exists side by side with music of such beauty.
In the last movement Britten gives three of the four players a cadenza. What a joy to hear Christopher Graves take centre stage, enjoying equally the deep throaty roar of his C string and the tuneful double-stopping on his A string four octaves higher. His is a bravura piece. Charlotte Bonneton’s cadenza is more tortured, in which she wrestles with her demons; Sini Simonen’s is more tuneful. All three were wonderfully played. I would have liked to hear Daniel Roberts on second violin play a cadenza too; I really like his playing. It’s often said that it’s the second violin that makes the difference between a good quartet and a great one. It’s a bit of an exaggeration but there is something in it and Daniel never fails to fulfil that role.
After the interval the Brahms Opus 88 came almost as a shock: such warmth, such cosiness after so much angst! I love this Brahms’ quintet and I don’t usually find it cosy at all – it was just the contrast with the Britten. It’s a great work and they played it wonderfully but I was too shell-shocked by the Britten to slip back into its 19th century world. It would have suited me better to end with the Britten. But I can imagine others might have liked it this way round. Either way I marvel at the commitment of the Castalian to all three pieces after a 5.30 am start that morning, and, because of engineering works, a train and bus journey via Redhill, which still meant that they had to be rescued by taxi from Three Bridges, leaving them little time to settle into the acoustic at ACCA. That’s professionalism!