Friday 29 November 2019

Hearing anew: two contemporary quartets and an established classic in the Sacconi Quartet's programme at Kings Place

The Sacconi Quartet (Photo Clive Barda)
The Sacconi Quartet (Photo Clive Barda)
Grime, Rachmaninov, Bingham, Schubert; Sacconi Quartet; Kings Place
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 28 November 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Two striking new quartets and an established classic in the intriguing programme at Kings Place

As part of Kings Place's Venus Unwrapped series, on Thursday 28 November 2019, the Sacconi Quartet (Ben Hancox, Hannah Dawson, Robin Ashwell, Cara Berridge) gave a programme which combined two contemporary works with an established classic, giving the first London performance of String Quartet No. 1 by Helen Grime (born 1981) and the world premiere of Goya's Dog by Judith Bingham (born 1952), alongside Rachmaninov's Romance and Schubert's String Quartet No. 14 in D minor 'Death and the Maiden'.

Helen Grime's String Quartet No. 1 was commissioned by the Edinburgh Quartet and premiered by them in 2014. It is in one continuous movement but the material is clearly delineated in sections, though Grime's organic approach to musical material meant that the work flowed continuously, gradually changing. A big feature of the whole piece was the use of duos within the quartet, with the work opening with viola and second violin duo, followed by that between cello and first violin. At first there was a steady thread of scurrying music running through, with the other pair of instruments commenting on the duo which was of primary interest. This led to sections where textures became more transparent, and the comments were almost highly rhythmic interruptions. Aetherial at times and often quite intense, Grime used the different duos interacting so the music could be transparent and magical or highly rhythmic, ending in an intense high energy final section.

As a palate cleanser, we had Rachmaninov's Romance for string quartet, an early work from his student days which the quartet gave a highly refined, elegant performance full or tender yearning.

Judith Bingham's Goya's Dog used four of Goya's vivid images of animals to create four contrasting movements for string quartet.
Bingham's use of the four different images meant that the quartet could be read as the standard opening movement, scherzo, slow movement, finale, whilst also relating to the images themselves - The Dream of Reason and Imagination: owls, bats, a cat and a lynx, The Duchess of Alba's lapdog: one small white Bolognese, Goya's Dog: The head of a dog, A Bull Stands his Ground: A fighting bull.

We started with elegantly expressive textures, lines weaving in an out in an appealing manner, with the addition of rhythmic knocking from the players as well. The Duchess of Alba was depicted as having flamenco inclinations, fragments of melody coalesced into an 'almost dance' enlivened by foot stamping from the players. The third movement was all sustained, intense chords moving to intertwining arpeggios whilst still keeping the same intensity and melancholy mood. The result, with its fragments of perkier rhythms, was disquieting and eerie, yet very intense. The final movement was full of foot stamping, a complex construction of intense flowing string gestures and stamping, with the players giving an amazingly visceral performance, of great intensity.

This was a very fine performance of a rather striking quartet. At times, you could feel the players' intense concentration, so the Duchess of Alba was perhaps a little too polite and needed more wildness, whilst they brought of the final movement's combination of stamping and playing with great brilliance. Yet we were aware of the challenge, and you feel that the quartet will benefit from further performances so that the players can make it their own.

To say that things relaxed in the second half would be wrong, as the Sacconi Quartet's performance of the Schubert was vivid, intense and deeply felt, but the music felt much more part of the group's consciousness, and we benefited from the fact that the foursome will be celebrating their 20th anniversary in 2021, so that have lived with this music a long time.

After a strong opening gesture, the music was quiet and elegant, with the group bringing in strong contrasts between the quiet intensity, transparent textures and moments which were strong, rhythmic and almost fierce. The second subject had a lovely tenderness and insouciance, but shot through with fierceness. And when we reached the coda, things turned finely eerie. This was strongly coloured and deeply etched music, and whilst there are a 1000 different meanings discoverable in the music you could not shake off the sense of Schubert struggling with despair and the foreknowledge of this death from syphilis. Of course, this is simplistic, composers often write music of great simplicity and tenderness under conditions of extreme distress, but here the Sacconi Quartet's performance of the music really did chime in with the what we know of the emotional background.

The second movement, which gives the quartet its name, started with a very aetherial statement of the theme and you thought of the words of the second verse of the song,
Give me your hand, you lovely, tender creature.
I am your friend, and come not to chastise.
Be of good courage. I am not cruel;
you shall sleep softly in my arms.
(Translation by Richard Wigmore first published by Gollancz and reprinted in the Hyperion Schubert Song Edition)

So at first the music was tender, full of lovely details, and throughout the long movement with its imaginative set of variations on the theme, the players kept the intensity up even in the quiet passages. The Scherzo was robust with plenty of attack to the notes yet tender moments too with a lovely trio full of great delicacy. The finale opened crisp, fast and quiet with moments of stunning intensity and energy too. This was a very  taut performance with stunning increase of tension and excitement towards the end of the movement.

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