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Music in the University (Aberdeen)

Written by Alan Cooper

Reproduced with permission

Thursday’s concert in King’s College Chapel was the third last in the series designed to explore in tandem all six Opus 33 Quartets by Joseph Haydn alongside all the works in the medium composed by Benjamin Britten.

The insightful programme notes by Dr. Roger Williams coupled with his very helpful pre-concert talk went a long way towards explaining the motive for bringing together these two composers whose music sounds so startlingly different. Both were in their day at the forefront of the development of string quartet literature. Haydn boosted the significance of the string quartet so that it could stand alongside the symphony and the concerto in importance while Britten as a composer had to struggle with the problems of finding new voices for the string quartet medium taking account of the developments of ever changing musical language. Things were easier for Haydn because he was working with a firmly established musical language with which his audience was familiar and would therefore easily understand what the composer was doing so he composed at least sixty-eight quartets. Britten wrote only three, plus some shorter movements, because he was striking out into largely unknown territory and would have to beat out his own path. Both composers however showed great leaps of imagination in their creations and Roger Williams was able to explain just what those leaps consisted of with the generous help of the Edinburgh Quartet in providing pointed musical examples.

Haydn’s Quartet in D Major, Op.33 No.6 opens with a fascinating movement in which short phrases of only one bar duration are gradually made to coalesce into a much broader sweep and in this performance the Edinburgh Quartet made this perfectly clear. The unusual proportions of the sonata form used here came across nicely too in this delightfully jaunty performance. The idea of dance runs through much of this work with the exception perhaps of the slightly wistful Andante. The Edinburgh Quartet made it sing out beautifully.

The third movement Scherzo sounded very firmly grounded like a dance in which the steps were very deliberately trod. The trio in which the solo cello was set against transparent upper strings was delightfully done.

Although the sense of dance in the finale was lighter, Haydn and indeed the Edinburgh Quartet did not entirely desert a sense of firmness in the music. Thematic echos between instrumental combinations added to the sense of Haydn’s trademark grace and elegance.

I suppose if one were to make a fairly blatant comparison between Haydn and Britten taking this concert as a measure, one could say that Haydn was basically a happy chappie whereas Britten certainly was not. Actually Britten had much reason for the angst that lay behind his Third Quartet and that he was able to create a work of such creativeness, freshness and imagination is something of a miracle.

This was a work for which in the absence of a score, live performance was practically indispensable. This was especially true of the first and third movements marked Duets and Solo respectively. In the first movement the second violin and viola open the work. Later on pizzicato first violin and cello call to each other and various duo combinations are exploited. Being able to see this in action was a great help.

The fiery Ostinato was full of imaginative textural variety and then in the third movement marked Solo Tristan Gurney’s beautifully clear stratospheric playing with faultless intonation was beautifully shadowed by a series of other players in turn: cello, viola, second violin and then ensemble.

As the programme note suggested, the influence of Shostakovich could be heard especially in the opening section and a fugal passage dissolved into more advanced experimental string writing.

The final movement is really the apotheosis of the work in which Britten returns to the inspiration of much earlier music with a Passacaglia. To begin with it seemed that the threatening sounds of funeral bells was emerging from the music before string sounds of great sweetness seemed to bring back the chimes in more happy and luminous tones. The music finally died away on a note held by the cello. This had been a thoroughly meaningful and illuminating performance of this difficult work, difficult for audience as much as for performers. It showed the Edinburgh Quartet with their new second violin Gordon Bragg still on top form.

Reproduced with permission