Friday 24th January 2020 – a fine string quartet play three powerful pieces and a world premiere.

To Lewes and the Nicolas Yonge (chamber music) Society. The Carducci Quartet (are they named after the great Italian Poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1906?) were formed in 1997 and perform a very wide range of pieces from Haydn through Beethoven and on to Shostakovich and Philip Glass. In this superb concert they played what, for various reasons, are three of the more anguished quartets in the repertoire and yet the near full house were, it seemed, quite rightly exhilarated by what they heard.

They began with Beethoven, from whom we shall be hearing a great deal in 2020 as the year marks the 250th anniversary of his birth. His Quartet in F Minor Opus 95 was written, we were told by First Violin Matthew Denton, during Napoleon’ siege of Vienna in 1810 with Beethoven sheltering in a cellar with a pillow over his ears to stop the adverse effect of the explosions on his tinnitus. Moreover, at about this time, his proposal of marriage to Therese Malfatti was rejected. It was certainly a very revolutionary piece for the time and the composer wrote to Sir George Smart, his London promoter, that the piece was “written for a small circle of connoisseurs and is never to be performed in public.” Well, despite its serious nature, the “serioso” quartet as it has become known, was greatly appreciated by the “connoisseurs” assembled. The Carduccis captured the various moods perfectly. The angry and aggressive first movement was followed by the lyrical yet plaintiff second with its slow descending scales on the ‘cello. There is nothing reassuring at all here. The allegro third movement seems to combine the temper of the first and the restlessness of the second. Although the finale starts more optimistically there is more agitation before we reach a triumphal resolution.

A huge change of sound worlds followed with Benjamin Britten’s String Quartet No. 1 of 1941. Written in America where Britten and Peter Pears had exiled themselves, the war obviously weighed heavily on the composer’s mind. Whilst there are extraordinary passages of almost ethereal violin playing against a background of ‘cello pizzicato in the first movement there is also the march like second with its spikey notes, and the desolate and melancholy third. Matthew Denton described the Finale as Haydn-like. It does have a brisk chirpy start but the huge leaps from the first violin bring us back into a world which is at war. The Carduccis love this piece, as was evidenced by their rather tattered sheet music, but their performance still had freshness and showed consummate understanding.

After the interval we were privileged to hear a world premiere of a movement from Kate Whitley’s Bluet for Piano Quintet, with the composer at the piano. Kate herself introduced the piece and told us that a ‘bluet’ is a small blue flower. She told us that while writing it she was having problems in her personal life and that the bluet can also be seen as symbolising sadness and memory. This of course meant that, mood wise, the piece matched well the evening’s other works. Her description in the programme notes of “the shimmering, luminous textures in the lower strings and piano, on top of which string melodies sing out” sums the work up well. I was reminded of John Taverner’s Protecting Veil and Mrs. MAE of The Lark Ascending, and none the worse for that. The whole work is due to be played by the Carduccis and the composer at King’s Pace in London in May. Well worth a visit.

The final work finds another composer in a despondent state. Felix Mendelssohn wrote his Quartet in F minor Opus 80 in the summer of 1847 in response to the sudden death of his beloved sister Fanny, from a stroke. Felix himself then also died from a stroke that November. This is the very opposite of the rather pictorial fusion of the classical and romantic for which he is known. The first movement features cries of anguish for each instrument in turn and then becomes faster and more angry. There is no let-up in the second which Chris Darwin, in his consistently excellent programme notes, describes as “ a Scherzo……[but] no joke” with its stabbing notes. The slow third movement gives brief respite and time for affectionate reminiscence with beautiful lyrical playing from all four instrumentalists, before the agonies of the finale and the return of those stabbing notes and anguished cries. Towards the end Matthew Denton’s violin leapt around above the others in a virtuosic display of tormented distress. Unlike the Beethoven Quartet which began the evening, there is no triumph in adversity, only deep despair. (*****)

This was chamber music of the highest quality – the sort of playing which makes the Nicholas Yonge Society (at £65 for five concerts) outstanding value.


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