The penultimate concert of the 2018/19 Lunchtime Series saw the return to Leicester of the Carducci Quartet. For good reason they are a big favourite with the Museum audience. Not only are they musically an immensely talented group, one of the best of current quartets that I have heard, but they have one other priceless attribute in the performers’ art. They convey to the audience the joy of playing great music. Not for them the solemn countenance more suitable for prayer. Rather, even from the moment of clambering onto the platform, in countenance and body language they seem to be saying, ‘Hey, isn’t it marvellous that we are here and just about to play some marvellous music!’ Of course, if they were not musicians of the front rank such an approach would seem to be mere posturing but fortunately they certainly have delivered a riveting concert whenever I have heard them, a concert that often made one re-evaluate even long held personal opinion of musical works.
So it was here. A fortnight ago I had hoped to find at last some positive light thrown on Pierre Boulez’s music but, alas, I remain in the dark. Now I was faced by the first work on the programme being by Philip Glass, his Quartet No.5 , and my memory went back a number of years to being with my wife at a performance at the English National Opera of this composer’s opera Satyagraha, a work centred on Gandhi’s early life in South Africa. Now, the two of us had in our time been at performances of quite a few contemporary operas but here for the first time in our lives we left at the interval , unable to put up with what seemed to us the endless repetition of the almost static score and the utter portentousness of the libretto. We agreed that we no longer wished to be part of what seemed to us some kind of mass hypnosis. Later a London musician told me of one story that was going the rounds, that a violinist in the orchestra had gone sick because of the experience of having to play the same note for over 20 minutes. At least, I thought, the work to be played in this concert would be relatively short.
Well ,I finished almost wishing that it had been longer. Here there were moments of stasis. Emma Denton, the cellist, at one point did seem in danger of getting permanently stuck on one figure, though in keeping with the character of the Quartet, her expression suggested excitement at the experience. However, such thoughts were fleeting for the variations of material were usually quite apparent even when comparatively minute. Hence there was a feeling of organic growth which led to some moments of great beauty and even once or twice of grandeur. The juxtaposition towards the end of the work of a massive unison sound followed by a return to the quiet simplicity that characterised some other parts of the work was memorably dramatic . Above all else ,on a first hearing the sheer beauty of the sound world the Carducci summoned up was such that, as work faded at the end, I felt real disappointment that the piece was finishing. Perhaps it had after all induced a mild state of hypnosis. Whatever, I was glad I had had the experience.
The surprises, however, were not over. I’ve heard any number of performances of Dvorak’s Quartet Op.95 ‘American’ , most recently last year in Canterbury given by another very well known quartet. This very fine performance was in perhaps the main tradition of playing Dvorak, which can best be characterised as ‘don’t press too hard, let the melodies and the sound breathe and blossom’. All of this certainly happened in that performance. However, that approach can result in too much sugar coming to the surface in less good performances and perhaps explains the great English composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s witty remark that he thought Dvorak ‘a good second rate composer’.
As the Carducci launched into their interpretation, I couldn’t help but think their way of doing things was a sharp riposte to that comment. It perfectly illustrated how a masterpiece by definition offers many way s of interpretation. At first, I thought the opening movement to be a little too fast given the instruction allegro ma non troppo. However, the virtuosity of the playing ensured that it never felt scrambled , had real sinew and as a result achieved a rare joyous buoyancy and lift. Similarly the slow movement had a pure lyricism, far from the sentimentality into which it can descend if over egged and from then on in the final two movements we danced Czech style all the way to the end of the work.
Once in my youth I was with a very musical and then much better informed school friend at a Prom, in which this composer’s 8th Symphony had been performed. As we walked across Hyde Park, I was on cloud nine and innocently asked why that work was any the less worth listening to than, say, Beethoven’s Fifth. For a moment I thought my usually very mild friend was going strike me for having said something so outrageous. It was like speaking ill of God to him. Well, too many decades afterwards, perhaps in a less exclusive musical climate, I thought after this vibrant performance that there was no reason to revise my view of a composer who brings in his best work such joy to human kind.
Talking of which, as a postscript and making the above point even more clearly, I had a memorable experience after the concert and the very well earned ovation had finished. In the audience was a sizeable party from a City school , Rushey Mead Academy. Since the front row of the party was sitting behind me I had had a short chat with several of the students before the concert. (Privately, I thought how the party had brought down the usual average age of the museum audience by some margin!). And then I forgot their existence beyond thinking how quiet they all were and that therefore they must have been hooked to some extent by what they were hearing. At the end I stood up, stretched my aching limbs and turned round to say farewell to the girls I had been talking to, only to find a weeping student being comforted by her friend. ‘Oh, dear,’ I thought, ‘did she hate it that much?’ I asked her what the matter was and she managed to say between sobs how wonderful the concert had been. Well, I felt that I might have to get my own hankie out after so fine a testament to the power of music. I got a message through to the players about the effect they had had on at least one young person but I learnt later in any case that they met the school party after the rest of the audience had left. That gesture in itself after an exhausting programme just re-inforced to my mind what I had already written about this fine group of musicians and their approach to music making. It is to be hoped that we hear them again in the not too distant future.
Tues. 12th March –Leicester Music Society 7.30 Clarendon Park Congregational Church , Springfield Avenue, on the corner of London Road.
Simon Lumby- Secular then Sacred.My musical journey.
Simon reflects through music on his career as a distinguished musician and then as a priest.