Concert review

Castalian String Quartet

19th February 2018

A formidable reputation preceded the Castalian String Quartet when they appeared for the Music Club’s latest concert. Formed in 2011 the quartet  have already performed widely throughout Europe and beyond at many prestigious venues and clearly have an international career ahead of them.

Haydn’s Quartet in D op.76 no.5 started in restrained mode –an intimate conversation between four players at ease with each other and it was soon evident that these young musicians  had achieved an enviably high level of ensemble playing. The first movement brought fine phrasing and tonal balance and the sort of unanimity that can be taken for granted but is a discipline only achieved by constant diligence. Even more impressive was their mature account of the slow movement , one of Haydn’s most spacious and searching. Each player in turn projected  the main stately theme with fine control and direction,  subtly pointed to Haydn’s unusual harmonic diversions and created a sense of profound calm. The Menuet returned to earth and the final Presto  burst forth with humorous abandon. The Quartet chose a fast tempo which in lesser hands might have got out of control.   But this was secure and elated music making – clarity ruled and the audience loved it.

First violinist Sini Simonen introduced Henri Dutilleux’s only string quartet,  Ainsi la Nuit written in 1976.   She had first heard a performance in Germany that had amazed and inspired her. Now that she  is eventually playing  the piece herself with evident devotion was a persuasive recommendation in its favour. The next 18 minutes  was a new experience for most of the audience – a piece that evolved gradually through seven sections in a soundscape ingeniously created by every device in a string player’s  repertoire,  a complex score whose main character relates to nocturnal images – now slow and sad, now frenetic ally energetic.   Judging by comments at the interval listeners were impressed and responded positively. Everyone certainly appreciated an outstanding feat of quartet playing

Back to mainstream repertoire to conclude the concert – Schumann’s Quartet in A major op.41 no.3.    Better known for his piano music Schumann devoted himself for one summer in 1842 to studying the  quartets of the classical masters and produced his three quartets – attractive, well written works that have kept their place on the concert platform. His instinctive feel for song-like melodies is evident throughout the first movement and the Castalian Quartet took full advantage of these expressive opportumities – refined sound, musical phrasing and allowing time for the music to breathe. The second movement’s variations alternate between vigorous and tranquil treatment of its theme.

Each player shared in the limelight with solo passages that emerged from the quartet texture in turn – a satisfyingly well-crafted performance. The slow movement again allowed the players to enjoy their melodic lines and the gradually more decorative accompanying voices. The finale sparkled with crisp rhythmic  playing and a fine sense of climaxes that brought the concert  to a jubilant finish. But an encore of the Scherzo from his A minor quartet provided the final brilliant flourish to a special concert.   Schumann’s Romantic urgency was new in his quartets and it was refreshing to savour this new strain of music after the Haydn and Dutilleux - a well-chosen programme.

John Upson



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