Tuesday 28 April 2015

Royal Greenwich String Quartet Festival

Members of the Benyounes and Piatti Quartets at Royal Greenwich String Quartet Festival
Members of the Benyounes and Piatti Quartets
at Royal Greenwich String Quartet Festival
Royal Greenwich String Quartet Festival; Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 24 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Gershwin, Hermann, Mendelssohn and more, a feast of string quartets

Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance's Royal Greenwich String Quartet Festival seems to be becoming a triennial event. This year's festival is the third (previous ones were in 2009 and 2012), with artistic director David Kenedy (Head of String Chamber Music at Trinity Laban). Taking place this year on 24 and 25 April 2015, it packed Greenwich with string quartets and film music (proving the two not incompatible) with evening performances from the Wihan Quartet and the Carducci Quartet, the Quatuor Prima Visa accompanying a filming of the silent film Nosferatu, the Richard Carne Intercollegiate String Quartet Competition and a concert by the winners of the Wigmore Hall String Quartet Competition, Quatuor Van Kuijk.

I went along on Friday 24 April 2015 for a couple of daytime events; a joint concert by the Piatti Quartet (who were also finalists in the Wigmore Hall String Quartet Competition) and Benyounes Quartet in the Chapel of the Old Royal Naval College, where they performed Gershwin, Bernard Herrmann and Mendelssohn's Octet, and then a joint concert by pupils from the Purcell School and Trinity Laban String Ensemble conducted by Nic Pendlebury (Head of Strings and member of the Smith Quartet).

The chapel at the Old Royal Naval College is a remarkable interior. Amidst all the Wren baroque, here is a very elaborate Athenian Stuart 18th century interior, heavy with plasterwork in pastel colours. Now that Trinity Laban has moved in, it means that it is the only UK conservatoire with its own chapel, and you can hear sung Evensong on Mondays.

The Benyounes Quartet opened with an arrangement of George Gershin's An American in Paris. Their usual line-up is Zara Benyounes, Emily Hollan, Tetsuumi Nagata and Kim Vaughan, but cellist Kim Vaughan was called away due to personal circumstances and she was replaced by her boyfriend, cellist Philip Higham who has collaborated with the quartet before (I heard them at St John's Smith Square in Schubert's Quintet, see my review).

It was curious to hear the Gershwin score played by just four players, though the four clearly relished the challenge and made it work. Perhaps it was not the most sophisticated performance, but certainly character and vitality stood in good stead for the instrumental colours of the original.

Bernard Herrmann composed for the concert hall as well as the film, so it as not inappropriate that the Piatti Quartet (Nathaniel Anderson-Frank, Michael Trainor, David Wigram, Jessie Ann Richardson) played Bernard Hermmann's Psycho Suite arranged for string quartet by the young composer Richard Birchall. It made for remarkable listening, challenging the listener to discern filmic references in the darkly intense melodic fragments, eerie sustained high notes and of course the music from that scene (which worked well in the new context). Poised playing from the Piatti Quartet brought out the edgy, suspenseful nature of the music.

The Piatti Quartet are currently Junior Fellows at Trinity Laban and the Benyounes Quartet were their predecessors in the role. The two groups came together at the end of the concert for Mendelssohn''s Octet, a remarkable early work written in 1825 (when the composer was 26) for a friend's birthday. The young players made a strong sound in a very impulsive performance, with a sense of muscularity underneath. There was delicacy too, and a nice feel for rubato with the moving tempo. It was very much in the orchestral style which Mendelssohn wanted, and there was no sense of two different playing styles from the two different groups. In the first movement they brought out the work's youthful energy and vibrancy, with real excitement. It rushed along, carrying you with the players'' enthusiasm but was never driven. At the end of the movement, the audience broke into spontaneous applause.

The second movement was full of a richly melodic melancholy, but elegant too. I loved the way the programme note said that the 'midsection features an undulating cello'. There were some richly powerful unison moments, and beautifully shaped playing in cascading passages. The scherzo was taken at quite a pace, with lively enthusiasm and crisp textures. There was a perky delicacy to the main tune, real toe-tapping stuff. These fairies were quite upfront, strong characters but with delicacy at the end. The final movement was vibrant, taken at an intense speed and the playing was technically superb. They combined passion and energy, but never brash. We got a real sense of the performers' enjoyment of the piece and communal music making. In fact, this was one of the most involving and memorable performances of the work that I have ever heard.

After a short break, I was in St Alfege's Church for a concert by members of the Purcell School and the Trinity Laban String Orchestra. First we had two quartet movements played by two different quartets from the Purcell School (where the musicians are all secondary school age). First four young women, Victoria Gill, Poll Schote-Sikorsky, Lucy Biddle and Nina Kiva played the first movement from Debussy's String Quartet, Op.10, making a strong muscular sound and giving a confident, passionate performance. Next four more young people from the Purcell School, all of Oriental origin this time, Ju-Hee Yang, Ming Chak Chan, Russel Tan and Youn Jun Lee, performed the first movement of Brahms' Quartet No. 2 in A minor Op.51, No.2. A performance which made a nice combination of delicacy and energy.

Next, Nic Pendlebury conducted the Trinity Laban String Orchestra in an arrangement of Musica Celestis (a work originally for string quartet) by Aaron Jay Kernis (born 1960). Inspired by the idea of the singing of angels, the work started from a high sustained slow moving figure, a violin solo introduces a melody which gets passed round the orchestra developing intense movements with polyphonic elements moving towards Tallis Fantasia-like moments and concluded with a lovely viola solo. The group captured well the mood and the beauty of the work.

Finally the Trinity Laban String Orchestra was joined by the eight players from the Purcell School to perform the arrangement of Janacek's Quartet No. 1 'Kreutzer Sonata' by Richard Tognetti for the Australian Chamber Orchestra. The first movement combined a lovely sweep to the tutti strings, contrasted with characterful solos. In the second the players really made the piece work, making a fine string sound with excitement, energy and concentration. In the third movement, there was a contrast between the poise of a solo quartet, and the intensely vibrant, strong tutti. A long lyrical elegiac violin solo opened the final movement followed by typically fast moving, intense Janacek textures. Tognetti's arrangment brings out the orchestral sweep of Janacek's work and what you miss in edge and concentration from just four players, you get instead power; it really feels orchestra.
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