Posted tagged ‘Wihan Quartet’

The Brodsky Quartet and friends — ‘Close To You II’

November 28, 2007

brodskyweb.jpg‘Sex And The String Quartet’ is not a widely discussed topic.  However, one of the delights of experiencing chamber music live – as opposed to on record or on the radio – is the interaction between the players:  the vibes, the sparks, the knowing grins, the micro-dramas, the body language.

For example, the Wihan Quartet (see my previous post) consists of four men:  their work ethic seems to be ‘Come on, chaps – let’s roll up our sleeves and go for it’ (with immense musicality and sensitivity, of course).  Conversely, when I heard the Chilingirian Quartet play Dvořák all those years ago, the viola player was the lovely, pale (and pregnant) Louise Williams, and it was touching to observe the tremendously gallant way in which the other three (male) members of the quartet nurtured and cared for her (musically, I mean).

In the Brodsky Quartet, the female member is the cellist, Jacqueline Thomas.  Uniquely, the quartet plays standing up, except for the cellist (yes, I know – ‘you can’t get that under your chin’), so she sits, literally, on a pedestal, with the others standing around her.  The image that came to my mind was of an ice princess surrounded by adoring acolytes (not wishing to be sexist or ‘look-ist’, but Ms Thomas is a strikingly tall and elegant ash blonde – though with a nice twinkle).

To composer Martin Butler, however, the image that came to mind was slightly different:

‘I imagined the four standing players to be acting as sentries, standing guard, keeping watch over the seated cellist and patrolling their space – hence the title. Then a friend pointed me in the direction of the opening scene of Hamlet – with its sentries, its sinister and slightly surreal atmosphere, its ghost, its uncertainty and apprehensiveness – and the flavour of the piece was fixed.’

The resulting work, Sentinels (for the Brodsky Quartet plus an extra viola – tonight John Metcalfe) was arresting and powerful, more challenging than other works by Prof. Butler that I have heard.  Strong, clear, colourful, totally ‘thought through’ – very rewarding.  (if you’re reading this, Martin, I’m sorry not to have met you;  I’ve been listening to the Tin Pan Ballet CD continuously in the car for a month!  Brilliant.)

When you add extra players to a quartet, the number of possible interactions – musical and interpersonal – must multiply geometrically (xkcd must have something to say about this).  With the six players required for Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, you are more or less listening to a string orchestra.  I have never managed to warm to this late-Romantic-early-Schoenberg ultra-emotional piece, although I can see and hear its virtues (maybe, for me, it’s just because it isn’t by Richard Strauss).  The Brodskys and friends gave a glorious performance – rich, passionate, sonorous, nuanced – but it didn’t do it for me (nor for my companion).

Then, in the second half, Schubert’s String Quintet – that favourite of Desert Island Discs (and me, of course).  (more…)

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The Wihan Quartet at Blackheath

November 25, 2007

wihanqt.jpgThere’s something about listening to chamber music at 11 o’clock in the morning – the mind is sharper and clearer, you can appreciate the music more, and find yourself picking up hints and connections that you might miss in the bustle of an evening.  (I received my education in the Dvořák string quartets thanks to an unforgettable Chilingirian Quartet cycle of morning concerts at the Cheltenham Festival some years ago.)

So – though groping through the fog of an incipient cold – a brisk walk up the road to Blackheath Concert Halls, to hear the Wihan Quartet in one of the Blackheath Sundays series.

Am I right in thinking there’s a historical connection here?  I believe the quartet takes its name from the great Bohemian cellist Hanuš Wihan, dedicatee of the Dvořák Cello Concerto (and cuckolded by a very young Richard Strauss), and Wihan played at Blackheath Halls a century ago?  The programme was silent on this point – along with other important information such as the names of the four players and the key of the Dvořák Op. 61 Quartet.

Anyway, the Wihan Quartet are local favourites;  the Recital Room was packed out.  The Quartet are four youngish gentlemen from Prague, all cast in the same amiable puppyish mould (no jokes about ‘bouncing Czechs’, please) – their mothers probably think they need haircuts.  All were dressed in black;  they sat with the viola on the outside, which makes for a compact sound with the cello at the heart of the quartet, as it should be.

Their sound tends toward the lean and stringy, though never less than beautiful, and they can do a magical hushed pianissimo;  tuning and ensemble were extraordinarily immaculate (I overheard my neighbour say ‘They breathe as one’, although they did follow their leader’s upbeat sniffs).

They began with the Mozart ‘Dissonance’ Quartet, K 465 – what a tremendous piece.  It’s one of the set of quartets that Mozart dedicated to Haydn, and you could feel Mozart striving to show the older master what he could do.  I caught myself wondering whether the famous ‘dissonant’ introduction was a homage to the ‘Chaos’ at the beginning of Haydn’s Creation, with its C minor harmonic dead-ends and non sequiturs;  but of course the Haydn was later, so perhaps the influence went the other way.  It was also interesting to try and track the progress of seeds planted in the introduction as they took root later in the work – the crawling chromatic bass lines, the chugging quavers.  Who knows.  And the lovely octave second subject in the last movement sang out like a ray of sunshine.

Then came Cavatina and Moravian Dance, billed in the advance publicity as by ‘Panufnik’ so I was expecting the very wonderful and underrated Andrzej Panufnik, Polish refugee and denizen of Surrey.  But no, this was by Roxanna, his composing daughter.  She shares many talents with her late father, including an accessible idiom and an ear for colour, the ability to swim effortlessly between simple chords and atonality with no bumps, and a taste for jazzy and bittersweet harmonies (sometimes with chords simultaneously major and minor). 

The Cavatina (more…)