Coffee Concert 26th November 2017 – Castalian Quartet – Review by Andrew Polmear

I’ve reviewed two previous concerts by the Castalian Quartet for Strings Attached. In 2012, with a different leader, there was the excitement of a new young quartet starting to make their way. In February 2017 I commented that they now had a distinctive style of their own, a style marked by freshness and clarity. Now such comments would be impertinent. They have matured into a major quartet that can adapt their playing to the demands of the music; and in this programme the demands were considerable.


They started with Haydn’s Opus 76 No.6. The opening notes were extraordinary: four notes, marked forte, then a pause; four notes, marked piano, then a pause; and so on for another eight repetitions. The touch was so delicate, so precise, so tender that they drew the audience in by this most undramatic of openings. And then, a few bars later, Haydn lets the first violin off the leash with running semiquavers; such a contrast with the understated opening. It’s easy to get Haydn wrong – either by being too restrained and missing the excitement; or by trying to instil too much drama and losing the delicacy. The Castalian do neither: exquisite phrasing captures the excitement while their delicacy gives the quieter moments a cut-glass elegance. Inevitably, in Haydn, a lot of this comes from the leader and Sini Simonen does it to perfection. But much of the success is because all players are playing as one: every phrase is caressed in the same way, vibrato is only used for specific emphasis, not as a routine, each player captures the changing moods in the same way. Such was the perfection that it was almost a relief when the timing came slightly unstuck in the difficult off-beat figure in the 3rd movement.


None of which was any preparation for the edgy challenge posed by the Dutilleux piece Ainsi la Nuit. It’s 17 minutes of intense conversation between four instruments in which the mood changes, sometimes animated, sometimes calm, and the range of which each instrument is capable is explored, sometimes in whispered harmonics, sometimes with an angry roar. Of the titles of the seven movements I was able to identify two with the music: the first Nocturne was dark, cold and lonely, while Constellations had an ethereal feel about it. The other five seemed more abstract to me: sounds and rhythms passed between the players to thrilling effect. Not a note seemed unnecessary or out of place. Christopher Graves, the cellist, said afterwards that there is a tune in there, but I didn’t spot it. The contrast with the Haydn could not have been greater: brilliant programming.


So to Beethoven Opus 132, one of the greatest works in the repertoire. It too opens with four notes, on the cello this time, played so slowly and quietly I couldn’t believe he wouldn’t run out of bow before he’d finished. Then, after eight bars, comes the first Allegro and this extraordinary work takes off. It’s a work full of stops and starts, and of changes of direction. The Castalian played it with such lyricism that the edges seemed smoothed, the angst diminished. It came across as, above all, tuneful, even if the tunes are sometimes just snatches rather than fully developed melodies. Perhaps it just seemed tuneful after the Dutilleux. I liked it, although it is the Haydn and the Dutilleux that I’ll be thinking about over the coming days.


The Castalian will return on February 25 with Haydn, Britten and Brahms. Excellent!