This quartet’s name was new to me, despite the prizes and acclaim detailed in the concert programme. And on 13th March 2013 here they were, starting their programme with Beethoven’s last, great, quartet, which most performers would have reserved for the end. In fact they formed 10 years ago; I have just not been paying attention. From the moment they entered the hall I knew it was my loss. They have the assurance of people who know exactly what they are doing. From the first they played with a rich warm tone, which is not easy to achieve in the demanding acoustic of the Corn Exchange. All four players contribute to this very distinctive sound. Their phrasing is exquisite, their timing (after a few early Sunday morning moments) impeccable. Even the varnish on their instruments glowed with the same rich brown.
In fact, at first I thought they were playing the first movement of the Beethoven too smoothly, not capturing the hesitancy, the startling changes of direction that Beethoven has written into the piece. The second movement too, very fast, almost slick, made me think of happy galloping horses, rather than the deaf genius pounding the table, berating God. It was the third movement that totally undid me: very slow, very still, impossible to capture in words and writers find themselves writing phrases like “touching the infinite” then crossing it out but failing to come up with anything else. The fast last movement was tremendous: however fast the tempo, however wild the writing, the players never lost their tone quality, their accuracy, their perfect communication from one player to another. Incidentally, I’d always thought of the last movement as Beethoven questioning whether he must die, since he wrote on the score “Must it be? It must be!” Chris Darwin’s programme notes disabused me – it was based on Beethoven’s regular argument with his landlady about whether he had to pay the rent!
OK, I thought, with that warm tone and lyricism they’ll be perfect for Ravel. Here my surprise was the other way round. The lyricism was there all right but they brought out the turbulence of the piece in a way I have never heard before. Often Ravel writes a fast and almost grumbling figure against the main ‘tune’. Most quartets play these ‘grumbling’ figures as though they are background. The Modigliani did it the other way round. As a result I heard complexities I’d never heard before.
Some practical things: about light and about positioning. This Sunday the blinds were drawn over the three south windows. Having praised the decision in the past to let the light shine through, I’ve changed my mind. We weren’t screwing our eyes up against the sun, and the lighting in the darker Corn Exchange was more interesting. As for the positioning of the quartet, whatever happened to playing in-the-round? The audience are in the round but this quartet, and the last, faced resolutely north. If this goes on, only late-comers will sit on the south side and that would be a shame.