To stand out among the extraordinary wealth of excellent quartets now playing, a new quartet has to have something unique. When the Castalian played for our launch concert in 2012 they were excellent but I couldn’t have said that they had what it took to be above the crowd. Now I can. They play with a freshness and clarity that is very very special. They do all the technical things perfectly of course– intonation, ensemble, individual virtuosity, perfect balance – but the excitement of listening to them comes from the way they approach a piece with a viewpoint that is their own, and then they turn that viewpoint into a distinctive musical expression.
They opened with Haydn’s quartet Op.76 No. 4, ‘The Sunrise’. It starts with the three lower strings holding a chord for four bars; at the end of the first bar the 1st violin comes in with a delicate rising tune. It’s marked piano but usually played at least mezzo piano in order to project to a concert hall audience. The Castalian played it more like pianissimo and with no vibrato. It had a fairy-like quality above which the first violin soared with ease. Then come three staccato chords, played so delicately that the silences between stood out. This sort of thing goes on for 21 bars until, without warning, Haydn launches into a lively, rollicking passage to which all players contribute – forte then fortissimo – before he gives them another long chord to hold, seven bars this time, although this time it’s the cello who has the tune. Christopher Graves played it as though he had all the time in the world, caressing the notes with the same tender expression that Sini Simonen had used at the start. I still don’t know whether he actually slowed the tempo or whether his playing just made time seem to stand still. Soon there’s another rumbustuous episode, after which the music reaches a double bar and Haydn lets them do it all over again. It’s just the first page of music but it seemed like a new world. I know this piece extremely well and yet felt I was hearing it for the first time. And I can relive every bar. So what did they do that made it so special? They emphasised the contrasts between loud and soft; they phrased beautifully, but there was something more, something about shaping every note with exquisite care, and each player shaping it in exactly the same way.
Beethoven is usually seen as the great watershed, as he ushered in the Romantic style. The way the Castalian played made me see how many things we attribute to Beethoven were already there in Haydn – the sudden shifts of mood, the sforzandi on unexpected notes, the use of silence, the treatment of the instruments as four (almost) equals.
Thomas Adès’ ‘Four Quarters’ was a revelation to me and to most of the audience. It’s an extraordinarily complex piece that can be appreciated very simply. Adès tries to help us with titles like ‘Nightfalls’ and ‘Morning Dew’ but to me it was as abstract as a Mondrian painting. The first quarter was all about the intervals between notes and how interesting they are. The second was about rhythm; at times the rhythm seems totally random, like raindrops falling at different speeds from four overflowing gutters. The third quarter was also about rhythm and the fourth was full of intervals and rhythms, the rhythms so complex that the listener was constantly wrong footed.
Described like that it sounds banal but it was endlessly fascinating. Not knowing the piece, it’s hard to say how good the playing was. It sounded wonderful. They seemed to make light of the extraordinary technical difficulties.
With Beethoven’s Rasumovsky Quartet No. 1 the Castalian faced the opposite problem: a piece that most people would know and that some would have heard played by some of the great quartets from the Amadeus onwards. It’s usually played with enormous momentum, dense, complex, bursting with energy. In fact the Castalian played it as they had played the Haydn. They let in space and light, they finished phrases like a singer pausing from breath rather than rolling the music on into one great glorious inevitability. They took it at a slower pace than most modern players which gave the cellist more chance to make time stand still again with his solos. I liked it very much. The image came to mind of a well-pruned apple tree. For non-gardeners, I should explain that an apple tree is well-pruned if, in winter, you can stand under it and throw your hat through it into the air.
As the applause at the end went on, Sini whispered to Daniel “Should we play something else?” I wanted to shout “Let’s hear the Adès again”. But, very wisely, they bowed again and left the stage.