Coffee Concert 26th November 2017 – Castalian Quartet – Review by Richard Amey, Worthing Herald

As a vastly contrasting interlude between intensely original late quartets by the world’s two quartet masters of the classical period, 18 French minutes of string effects-driven sound exploration into the atmosphere of night signalled exciting instinctive and intelligently programming by the Castalians.

The Coffee Concerters, alert and prepared by Chris Darwin’s ‘Origins of the Pieces’ brochure notes, appreciated the rewards of the excursion offered. Without my English-French pocket dictionary, and not seeing any translation offered, I did not realise ‘Ainsi’ meant ‘Thus’ until I got home. So I and my fellow non-Francophiles missed the fullest experience of Dutilleux’s accomplished and meticulous sound depiction of human hours after dark.

Never mind. What I derived was vivid enough and I will now gravitate all the more towards a second hearing of Dutilleux’s only quartet, equipped as I now am by the Castalians’ deftly executed commitment to the cause.

It’s fascinating that it was a Frenchman who set one of the 20th Century benchmarks in effective experimental string composition and in 1976 it came 150 years after Beethoven died. Would the German have written like Dutilleux, Boulez or Messiaen if alive in their century? Or, born 100 years later than his 1770, would he have written like Debussy and Ravel? Would he have needed to have been French to share that sensuality?

Imponderable, of course, not least because Beethoven, deaf, would probably not have made enough substantial contact with the language of the effects Dutilleux was using, to draw them into his own language. The Castalians’ petite violist, Charlotte Bonneton, from Grenoble, told me later, much as she enjoyed playing French music new to her, Ainsi la Nuit was recently chosen for their repertoire by lead violinist Sini Simonen – a Finn.

Simonen has been a Castalian for four years and in several ways it is she who makes them remarkable. She is so subtly, so minimally demonstrative physically during her playing. There is no discernable intention to protrude, display or court attention.

The modern catch-phrase is “There is no ‘I’ in team”. Underlined afterwards when fellow fiddler Daniel Roberts told me any one of their four players can individually take the lead [in creating tempo or momentum, mood or atmosphere], or that any individual’s instrumental sound can become the prescribed focus of the three other quartet members to elevate the performance. One of the striking results is their transparency of sound and texture they achieve.

This young quartet is growing closer to the hearts of the Coffee Concerters in the footsteps of Heath Quartet and the Elias before them. With the charcoal stick, pencil, brush or ambient benefits of harmonics, plucks and slides – all channelled alongside standard tricks of tremolo, ponticello and mutes towards his subject of Night in previous experimental dry-run pieces – Dutilleux’s perfected sound painting in the Castalians’ hands evoked many commonly felt feelings, sensations, notions, agitations, delights and fears.

The movements are Nocturne, Space Mirror, Litanies and Litanies II, Constellations, Nocturne II and Suspended Time.

In his Opus 132, Beethoven was heading towards his own long night and writing about it subconsciously as well as otherwise. The Castalians played the second of his five Late Quartets, in which Beethoven transcends the music not only his own age but of all eras. The reason I still feel unqualified to examine in detail any group’s performance of these works was voiced for me by Charlotte Bonneton in our chat, which confirmed my sense that, whether listening or performing, we commune with Beethoven’s intensified perception of life’s fundamental unanswerables.

Bonnetton said, “Yes, it can take a lifetime to understand fully this music, and probably needs even longer than that.” After a performance of late Beethoven, many of the things she listed her quartet as feeling coincided with what we do as listeners. And the culminating one she listed was ‘nourishment’. For spiritual reward, we need late Beethoven on our dinner plates!

After his rarified main opening utterance of his slow movement, his declared hymn of thanksgiving for deliverance from serious stomach illness – yet another great highlight moment in Beethoven, the music stirs into new life. I flashed a look across the quartet at this point and saw one small, gentle smile. It was Benneton’s. Darwin tells us, we have wine, coffee and spices to thank for this music – or rather the composer’s obedience to his doctor’s orders to banish them.

Heading up this excellent concert programme was Haydn. Not familiar Haydn, nor Esterhazy Court everyday Haydn, but The Father of the String Quartet in his 65th year. In his following final 12, strength wilting under the weight of large scale commissions, he completed only two more of his 69 quartets. And the Castalians gave us, with complete assurance, true Late Haydn. Just like his pupil Beethoven: consummate fresh originality, daring and wisdom, all borne of long mastery and a thirst for remaining alive.

The Castalians return on 25 February to play another of Haydn’s twilight-years Opus 76 (No 5 in D), plus Britten’s No 2, and they bring Simon Rowland-Jones as second violist for Brahms’ Quintet No 1 in F Op88. Rowland-Jones is two generations the Castalians’ senior but, says Roberts, “He’s in his 60s. We simply met and got on really well. We’ll be playing the Brahms together in Edinburgh just beforehand.”