Sunday 20 October 2013

Autumn Music at the Temple: Sacconi Quartet

The Sacconi Quartet - Picture credit David Merewether
The Sacconi Quartet
Picture credit David Merewether
The Sacconi String Quartet played last night (Tuesday 15 October) at the Temple church just outside the city of London. The Temple church was built in the 12th century by the Knights Templar, a medieval military order of monks whose duty was to protect pilgrims during the crusades. They built several churches and castles across Europe and the Middle East, as well as the Temple church, and it is the basic design of a round church (echoing the circular Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem), and its attendant chancel, which gives the building its amazing acoustic today.

The quartets programme reflected two composer centenaries, as they played Verdi's String Quartet paired with Puccini's Crisantemi, and Britten's Second String Quartet paired with Purcell's Chaconne.

Named after an Italian luthier and restorer Simone Sacconi, the Sacconi Quartet comprises of Ben Hancox, Hannah Dawson, Robin Ashwell, Cara Berridge - in fact Robin’s viola was made by Sacconi in 1934. The group was formed in 2001 and has since won many prizes including the Trondheim International String Quartet Competition and the Kurtág Prize at the Bordeaux International String Quartet Competition in 2005, and the Sidney Griller Award and the Esterhazy Prize at the 2006 London International String Quartet Competition.

Not afraid of something new, they have performed premiers for eminent contemporary composers such as György Kurtág, Robin Holloway, Paul Patterson, John McCabe, Timothy Salter, John Metcalf, Alun Hoddinott, and Paul McCartney. But although tonight’s performance was much more mainstream it was no less meticulously thought out and executed.

Giacomo Puccini’s (1858–1924) Crisantemi was played for every operatic ounce. In the Temple church’s acoustic every note was crystal clear, and sympathetic playing brought out each part while maintaining the interplay between them. The quality of their instruments shone through, with rich lower tones from the violins and delicate upper reaches. Crisantemi (chrysanthemums) is the only surviving string quartet by Puccini. It was composed in 1890, allegedly in a single night, as a threnody for his friend the Duke Amedeo of Savoy. Some three years later Puccini reused material from Crisantemi in his opera Manon Lescaut, along with themes from other chamber works.

The String Quartet in E minor by Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) is similarly a rare chamber piece, as it was composed in the winter of 1872-3 during a break in rehearsals for Aida to accommodate performer’s illness. However it then took another three years before Verdi allowed it to be published. The mournful Allegro moved through many moods, sometimes uplifting, sometimes scurrying, demonstrating just how attuned to each other the performers were. However there was a bit too much gratuitous bow waving for me. The Andantino was treated equally operatically, with its dance-like themes and delicate tripping interrupted by violent outbursts.

The Prestissimo, reminiscent of Macbeth, employed very tightly controlled spiccato. The central pizzicato section allowed the viola to shine and the performance of the final Scherzo fuga was brilliant and emotive, despite the cold of the hall.

Wisely the quartet had rearranged the performance order, playing the two operatic quartets in the first half and pairing the Purcell and Britten together after the interval. Henry Purcell’s (1659-1695) Chaconne in G minor, preformed as a prelude to the Britten, was performed in a very simple and honest way using open strings, low position, and little vibrato. This change in style, while maintaining the mournful theme of the first half of the concert, highlighted the versatility of the quartet and provided a link between the two halves of the concert.

Probably written around 1680 this chaconne makes use of a recurring bass continuo line and a light, dancing, dotted rhythm for the variations. The idea of the chaconne was used by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) in the last movement of his 1945 String Quartet No. 2 in C Major, Opus 36. The quartet was written soon after Britten toured German concentration camps with Yehudi Menuhin and was inspired by the 250th anniversary of the death of Purcell.

Unlike the calm purity of the Purcell, the Britten practically spat from the start - the Allegro calmo senza rigore and the Vivace ached with tormented dances. The ground bass of the Chaconny moved easily between instruments and the groups of variations were separated by well played cadenzas. The recurring thematic elements from the first movement, even when fragmentary, were brought out to tie the work together.

There was no encore – but how do you follow that. The Sacconi String Quartet interspersed their performance with brief explanations about the pieces and how they were composed – a nice touch which showed their personality and gave a frame of reference in a way programme notes cannot. Definitely a quartet to watch out for.
Review by Hilary Glover

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