Friday 11 September 2020

Late Haydn and Brahms on an Autumn evening in the park: Anthony Friend and the Solem Quartet at Battersea Park bandstand

Brahms: Clarinet Quintet - Solem Quartet, Anthony Friend - Bandstand Chamber Festival at Battersea Park (Photo William Marsey)
Brahms: Clarinet Quintet - Solem Quartet, Anthony Friend
Bandstand Chamber Festival at Battersea Park (Photo William Marsey)

Haydn Quartet in E flat, Op. 76, No. 6, Brahms Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op.115; Anthony Friend, Solem Quartet; Bandstand Chamber Festival

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 10 September 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Two late chamber works in performances which mixed youthful engagement with Autumnal glow

We returned to Battersea Park bandstand for the third of Bandstand Chamber Festival's concerts, when the Solem Quartet (Amy Tress, William Newell, Stephen Upshaw, Stephanie Tress) performed a pair of late works, Haydn's Quartet in E flat, Op. 76, No. 6 and Brahms Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op.115 with clarinettist Anthony Friend (the artistic director of the festival).

Haydn's six Opus 76 string quartets, written in 1797-1799 (when he was 65 to 67) and the last complete set of quartets that he wrote, and Brahms Clarinet Quintet (written when he was 58) are both late works and the Brahms is routinely referred to as Autumnal. But what struck me, listening to this programme played by the relatively youthful players (the Solem Quartet was founded in 2011) was that what the two works had in common was the way both composers seemed to have a fascination for counterpoint, each work is built out of many moving parts with both composers ensuring that all the players contributed equally. The notion of a string quartet with four independent parts very much developed during Haydn's lifetime, and his writing for the genre contributed significantly to this, whilst Brahms in his quintet avoids the sense of a mini-concerto for clarinet and writes equally for all five instruments.

Brahms: Clarinet Quintet - Solem Quartet, Anthony Friend - Bandstand Chamber Festival at Battersea Park (Photo William Marsey)
Haydn: Quartet in E flat - Solem Quartet
Bandstand Chamber Festival at Battersea Park
(Photo William Marsey)
Haydn, in his Opus 76 quartets, moved away from the traditional structures of the genre, with first movements that avoid sonata form and other movements using interesting forms so that the Quartet in E flat has a type of variations as the first movement whilst the second is a fantasia. Haydn introduced other changes too, so the quartets have a greater degree of thematic unity than was common at the time. 

The first movement started out gracefully, a sense of polite music making, but as the movement developed so did the interest with the four players relishing the way Haydn gives motivic interest to all four lines. The players gave us a strong sense of engagement, the way the four functioned as a group. The second movement began with a beautifully sung melody on the first violin, and then Haydn shows us what can be done with it. The performance was intense and concentrated, rather than demonstrative, creating a striking atmosphere. By contrast the Menuetto (marked Presto) was vivid and perky, with a trio full of contrasts. The finale, full of intricate moving parts, had a strong onward flow and was wonderfully enjoyed by the players.

Brahms in 1890 wasn't old (he was 57) but he was contemplating retirement, thinking that in his compositions he had achieved what he wanted, saying he 'had achieved enough; here I had before me a carefree old age and could enjoy it in peace'. Perhaps his friends thought otherwise, anyway the playing of the clarinettist with the Meiningen Court Orchestra, Richard Mühlfeld, seems to have tempted Brahms into writing more. First a Clarinet Trio and the Clarinet Quintet, and then two Clarinet Sonatas. The quintet was first performed privately in Meiningen by Richard Mühlfeld and the Joachim Quartet (led by violinist Joseph Joachim).

Friend and the Solem Quartet gave a very collegial account of the work, five equals rather than having the clarinet over-spotlit. Whilst the first movement was Autumnal and melancholy, it was also flowing and full of engaged energy. The second movement's multiple moving parts coalesced into moments of lyrical beauty,  high intensity and rhapsodic clarinet lines. The flowing third movement also felt like a complex textured structure which came together with a lyrical glow. The theme and variations of the finale were each full of character and individuality, the whole given a lyrical warmth which became Autumnal when the work's opening theme returned.

Two late works on an Autumn evening in the park, but just as the weather has a slight edge to it and needed that extra layer so the players' performances had an edge and vitality. This was highly engaged playing which did not simply bask in the warm glow of the works but gave us highly thoughtful performances.

There is one final performance at the festival, on Tuesday 15 September when the Hill Quartet performs Haydn and Ravel, see the festival website for details.

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