The Endellion Quartet – the fourth Strings Attached Dome Coffee Concert 2011-12

Reviewed by Andrew Polmear

What a joy to have the blinds up in the Corn Exchange on Sunday morning, 19th February, and the winter sun streaming through those great south-facing windows. It wasn’t such a joy for the players, the Endellion quartet, because they couldn’t sit in the round without one player being blinded, so they had to adopt a more conventional semi-circle, facing north. I found myself watching their backs or sides; though once they started playing I didn’t mind what I was watching.

The Endellion have been together for 32 years and it shows. Their ensemble was impeccable, their instruments sounded as though made to play together, and each player knew how to come through with a solo at just the right volume. It was especially enjoyable to hear Garfield Jackson’s viola soaring above the others – not easy on a viola – in those moments in the Mendelssohn when the viola has the tune.

They began with Haydn’s Opus 71 No.3, a big bold piece packed with invention in every part. They played it with tremendous gusto and feeling, where a younger quartet might have gone for the more elegant, more exquisite approach that is common today. The Endellion’s interpretation worked because they combined the power with such beautiful phrasing and such intelligent understanding of the work . Chris Darwin’s programme notes captured one such moment of magic: “but then a typical Haydn masterstroke: the cello drops out and the upper strings twitter away very staccato and pianissimo at the tops of their registers like a charm of goldfinches”. The moment came, the upper strings twittered, and it was hard not to laugh with joy at something so wonderful.

Mendelssohn’s quartet Opus 44 No.2 gives the lie to those who maintain that Mendelssohn wrote pretty but superficial music. It’s passionate and complex and I’ve never heard it played better than this. Each player was expressive but never at the expense of the ensemble playing. The fast movements were played really fast but their technique was so sure that they conveyed the hectic excitement of the music without any sense that they were in danger of coming apart. At the end of it the leader, Andrew Watkinson, looked exhausted, with justification; they had put everything they had into their playing. My only regret: they moved too quickly from the Haydn to the Mendelssohn and were in and out of the hall within an hour. Playing only two pieces should have given them time to pause and talk about what the music means to them, or what instruments they are playing on, or even a story about what happened on their way to Brighton that morning. It would have given us time to get over the Haydn and move forward nearly 50 years to the Mendelssohn. And it would have given us more of a feeling for them as people. Performers often make the mistake of thinking they are there just to play the music. In fact they are there to interact with us, the audience, through the music. It’s intimate and personal and hearing their voices and understanding their feelings about a piece are part of that.