Saturday 17 May 2014

In search of the contemporary string quartet - Quatuor Tana at Vale of Glamorgan Music Festival

Quatuor Tana and Nick Baron
Quatuor Tana and Nick Baron
Music for string quartet by Gabriel Jackson, Yann Robin, John Metcalf, Daniel D'Adamo, John Tavener: Quatuor Tana, Nick Baron: Vale of Glamorgan Music Festival at Ewenny Priory Church
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on My 16 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Young Belgian string quartet performs contrasting group of contemporary works for string quartet

Ewenney Priory Church
Ewenney Priory Church
The Belgium-based string quartet, Quatuor Tana made their second appearance of the Vale of Glamorgan Music Festival at the lovely Ewenny Priory on 16 May 2014. The 12th century priory church hidden in the countryside outside Bridgened formed the venue for a programme of contemporary music for string quartet with music by Gabriel Jackson, Yann Robin, John Metcalf, Daniel D'Adamo and John Tavener. The quartet were joined by Nick Baron on handbells for Tavener's The Last Sleep of the Virgin.

All five works were written in the present century, yet each offered a very different view of what a contemporary string quartet could be. Both Jackson and Metcalf explored the lyrical possibilities of the medium, whereas Robin and D'Adamo pushed the string sound-world to its very limits (and beyond). Tavener's strange work, written just before the composer's heard surgery, with its quiet handbell accompaniment completed the concert by taking us into another more mystical region.

Gabriel Jackson's String Quartet No. 3: Llanandras Melodies (2007) was written for the Presteigne Festival (Llanandras is the Welsh name for Presteigne). In it Jackson uses a sequence of invented folk-songs, the length of each episode governed by the letters of the word Llanandras! The result sounded far more natural and less contrived than this description makes it sound. Jackson used his folk-like melodies in simple form, relying on heterophony and simple accompaniment. I have to confess that I rather found the folk-tunes had rather a Scots Gaelic cast to them (rather than Welsh), but the results were hauntingly effective.

The players of the Quator Tana (Antoine Maisonhaute and Chikako Hosoda, violins, Maxime Desert, viola, and Jeanne Maisonhaute, cello) do not play from printed music, instead they use foot-controlled iPads. For a group which plays a lot of contemporary music, this must make a lot of sense.

Yann Robin studied both jazz and composition, in Aix en Provence and in Marseilles. His Quartet No. 2: Crescent Scratches explores the unpitched sounds which the string players can make. The title refers to the scratching done by DJ's on vinyl discs, and Robin's writing in the quartet makes reference to the looping techniques of the DJ as well. Before the quartet started, the players gave us a demonstration of the different types of sounds possible with the players putting the bow close to the bridge or pressing really hard. In his spoken introduction Antoine Maisonhaute warned us that the piece was 'quite offensive'.

Robin constructed his sound world from distorted sounds, shapes and textures, and the result was a remarkable tour-de-force from the players with some very striking sounds. The performance by the Quatuor Tana was very physical and completely mesmerising. The work formed a fascinating constrast to the Jackson, and displayed a remarkably inventive attitude to creating musical structures without pitch. Whilst in no sense easy listening, you sensed Robin's sensibility in the way he gave the piece form and structure.

The first half finished with Paths of Song by John Metcalf, the festival's artistic director. The work was written in 2010 for Bangor New Music Festival, Llandudno Festival and Lower Machen Festival. Metcalf started writing the piece with the concept of travelling in mind, with the whole piece going at a steady walking pace though in fact Metcalf's music develops in all sorts of lyrical ways and though continuous divides clearly into five clear movements, Andante, Estatico, Calmo, Scherzevole and Cantabile. The opening Andante had a lovely lyrical sense with the feeling of the four different lines flowing in and out of focus. This was real quartet writing, with each player having their own role, rather than solo and accompaniment, and the players displayed real sensibility in performance. (Talking to Metcalf afterwards, it came as no surprise to find that he had first been impressed with the Quatuor Tana when hearing them in the Debussy quartet).

 The ebb and flow developed an intensity as it moved to the Ecstatico section, before the texture thinned into a lovely singing, long-breathed violin solo in the Calmo section. For the Scherzevole Metcalf replaced the flowing lyricism with a combination of pizzicato and arto, with some interesting heterophony which harked back to the Jackson quartet. The final section, Cantabile, brought back the strong lyricism of the opening with a rich ebb and flow between parts.

Ewenny Priory Church from the nave
Ewenny Priory Church from the nave
The area of the church in regular use as a church (and for concerts) is in fact just the nave of the building. This is divided off from the chancel and crossing by an old wall topped by a wonderful modern glass reredos. Behind the wall lies the crossing, chancel and remaning transept (the North Transept is ruined). It was this part of the building which was painted by Turner and it was here that we were free to explore with a glass of wine at the interval.

The second half opened with Daniel D'Adamo's Quartet No. 2. D'Adamo studied in Buenos Aires before entereing Lyons Conservatory, and continued his training at IRCAM with Tristan Murail and Brian Ferneyhough. Quator Tana premiered his Quartet No. 2 in 2013. The quartet examines the method of making music on a string instrument in forensic detail. The work starts with the four players seemingly experimenting with types of sound possible, the four lines seemingly completely independent with much space between them.  At first there was no pitched material, but gradually Robin adds this though there was never anything resembling a melody. The work had the feeling of a dramatic narrative, as if the players were learning to play together. I have to confess that I found the work rather less riveting than Yann Robin's work, perhaps because the style was more forensic and far less a tour-de-force for the players.

The final work in the programme was John Tavener's 2002 The Last Sleep of the Virgin. Written for string quartet and hand bells (suspended and played by being struck with soft sticks), the work is consistently quiet with the string players urged to play on the brink of audibility. The sound world of the bells is fascinating and not a little magical, though they did rather sound alarmingly like the mantelpiece clock which my parents were given as a wedding present in 1949!

It is a long work (20 minutes long), and Tavener explores a range of textures and melodic ideas and I only have admiration for the five players for the way that they sustained the intensity in such a quiet piece. Much of the melodic material had a rather oriental cast, despite Tavener's own programme note talking about the Byzantine background to the music. I felt that my lack of knowledge of the piece hampered my appreciation, and I worried what all the different sections meant. As with much of Tavener's music, I rather struggle with the requirement to take it on its own religious terms and would like to be able to appreciate it without worrying about Tavener's religiosity and religious programme. At times we seemed to be part of a transcendent mystical experience, and at others it simply seemed a piece of gross self-indulgence.
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