It never ceases to delight that there can be such wide differences in the way high class quartets interpret music and have such differing aims in relation to the sound that they strive to achieve. These thoughts rose to the surface whilst listening to the Carducci Quartet in the second Summer Gala Recital at the Museum. Two comparisons in particular came to mind.
A few years ago, Leicester was visited by a quartet from across the Atlantic who had over many years acquired a formidable reputation. One could see why. Without for the most part the players needing to look at one another, everything was honed to perfection, there was a finely sophisticated sound and much most delicate phrasing. And yet my wife, who had a nose for such things, declared at the interval that she had never seen such a bored looking group. The viola player she in particular singled out, saying that he looked as if he would rather be anywhere other than Leicester on that Sunday morning. Now, none of that was directly musical comment but it also accurately mirrored our feelings about the performances. One felt the quartet was playing on auto drive and the music had been almost manicured out of existence.
Compare that to the Carducci. Every time that I have seen them come before the audience they look as if they are truly delighted to be playing this music, at this time, in this place. Of course, that would be as nothing if they were not demonstrably such a very fine ensemble and here another more recent comparison came to mind. They started with an early Haydn Quartet, Op 20, No.4. Now, it so happened that last year a quartet famed for its performances on gut strings of Haydn quartets gave a concert in the city and very fine it was, delightfully phrased and light and fleet of step. It spoke of the composer’s roots in the Baroque.
This performance on the other hand was truly shocking in its announcement, even in this early opus number, of a composer breaking the baroque mould. It was astonishing how it made one completely change one’s expectations of the composer’s early efforts in this genre, with playing of such propulsion that it might almost have been Beethoven, if not, as the programme notes remarked, something beyond in the mid 19c. The Carducci clearly relished everything about it. Delicate it was clearly not intended to be nor was any attempt made at ‘authenticity’. This was dramatic and earthy music making, the players at times producing an extraordinarily warm and weighty resonance, entirely at one with the composer’s later London symphonies. There was real emotion in the slow movement variations and a huge gusto and humour in the last two movements that spoke of a great composer straining at the leash to escape the polite boundaries laid down by the 18c.Court.
And of course in the Beethoven Op. 18 No.4 that followed the theme was continued. Here ,whilst being alert to Beethoven’s occasionally wicked off beat humour, time and again the quartet’s sound was striking in its drama and weight. It was often almost like one was listening to a small orchestra. Indeed, by the interval I found myself wondering whether I had ever heard two early works by these composers delivered with such startling clout and so clearly speaking of revolution.
After the interval, the concert continued on it stratospheric course. The first item was a premiere of a work for Violin and Cello composed by a Wyggeston QE Sixth Form College student, Rebecca Burden. This was the result of the Quartet’s involvement in a LIMF education project for local A Level Music students. This had produced a number of works from which this one was singled out for performance. Before the concert I thought that indulgence was certainly going to be needed in the company the work was keeping. In fact, the facility of the music, its clear sense of structure and progression and above all its keen grasp of the range of colour this combination offers the composer made indulgence the last thing required. Indeed, as someone who spent a quite a proportion of his working life at the College and who had retired before the composer was even born, I shed a quiet tear of pride that the old place still functions so well! What with Benjamin’s Ashby’s premiered Quartet at the last Festival, there is certainly some compositional talent around Leicestershire at the moment. Good luck to both.
So to the last work of this fine concert, Shostakovich’s 2nd Quartet, written at the end of WW11. Now, I was not aware that I had ever heard this particular quartet, though in the past the Lindsays had featured the composer quite often in their Leicester series. Therefore, I made a point of fishing out my complete set of the quartets recorded by a Russian ensemble who took the composer’s name and recorded the set in the years immediately after the composer’s death.
I have to say that I was not much gripped at first. It seemed at times to be one of those works that musicologists loved to argue about, particularly delighting in revealing the codes that the composer had supposedly concealed in the music given his terrifying situation at the time with the Soviet authorities. The performance in its basically bleak greyness with bursts of loud dissonance did not for me inhabit a particularly interesting sound world.
Of course, to compare a recording to a live performance is always very questionable but all I can say is that the work appeared in this concert as something much more compelling and one could see why the Royal Philharmonic Society felt that the Carducci’s recording of the 15th Quartet was the outstanding chamber music disc of 2016. In this performance it was as if the work had had a blood transfusion. One certainly needed no code to grasp the anger, the desperation, as well as at times the beauty of the way in which grief is depicted. Russians do grief like no other race on the planet and here in the slow movement and at times in final movement, whose lovely tune clearly has a Russian Orthodox base, the power of feeling in the playing was overwhelming. The opening movement had tremendous drive with the anger at times palpable but it was in the third waltz like movement that I was most certain that I was hearing things for the first time. This in the CD booklet was described as ‘pensive’ in atmosphere and the Russians’ interpretation rather bore that out. In the Carducci’s performance what it became at times was a spectral world, about as far away from quiet thought as possible. It seemed almost the stuff of nightmares. All in all, this concert was for me a memorable musical experience, possibly the one that takes the palm in what has been a stellar series of concerts at the Museum this season.
Sadly, now we must shut down until the autumn when we convene at the Festival starting on Sept 21st. and the globe starts spinning again. Have a good summer.