Saturday 5 September 2020

The sheer joy of music making: the Maggini Quartet emerges from hibernation to celebrate the delight of playing together

The Maggini Quartet in Battersea Park - Bandstand Chamber Festival (Photo William Marsey)
The Maggini Quartet in Battersea Park - Bandstand Chamber Festival
(Photo William Marsey)

Beethoven String Quartet in G, Op.18 No. 2, Dvorak String Quartet in F, Op. 96 'American'; Maggini Quartet; Bandstand Chamber Festival in Battersea Park

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 28 August 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The Maggini Quartet emerges from hibernation for an out-door programme full of the sheer delight in music-making

The bandstand in Battersea Park is not quite the place where you would expect to find one of Britain's finest string quartets playing but thanks to the Bandstand Chamber Festival, artistic director Anthony Friend, and with the support of Wandsworth Council's Love Parks Wandsworth campaign, on Friday 4 September 2020 the Maggini Quartet (Julian Leaper, Ciaran McCabe, Martin Outram, Michal Kaznowski) performed Beethoven's Quartet in G, Op. 18, no. 2 and Dvorak's Quartet in F, Op. 96, 'American'. It was the quartet's first performance since lockdown and in his spoken introduction Michal Kaznowski described the players as having emerged from hibernation two weeks ago.

Outdoors, even under a bandstand, is not the ideal situation in which to hear a string quartet but this was a welcome opportunity for many people to hear live music in a safe situation. The players were discreetly amplified, and the sound was quite direct. The quartet sensibly made no attempt to 'big up' the sound, and instead concentrated on intensity and often quiet intimacy. It was a remarkable performance; without the acoustic warmth provided by a major concert hall we got to hear the players in great detail.

We started with the second of Beethoven's six Opus 18 string quartets, his first major essay in the genre and something he delayed somewhat perhaps aware of the strong competition in Mozart and Haydn's recent quartets, but in these works the young composer (31 when they were published) demonstrated his complete mastery. 

The Maggini Quartet in Battersea Park - Bandstand Chamber Festival (Photo William Marsey)
The Maggini Quartet in Battersea Park - Bandstand Chamber Festival (Photo William Marsey)

The opening movement of the Beethoven was notable for the players' articulation and sprung rhythms, along with a real sense of joy in the music, whilst the main theme had a lovely insouciance to it. The development moved to darker, more mysterious areas but still with that sense of civilised music making with harked back to the earlier composers.  Whilst the slow movement was violin led, with a lovely decorated line from Julian Leaper, Beethoven gives all the players plenty of interest. The quartet gave the music a feeling of being held back, of being in tension and perhaps this was released in the rather surprising perky middle section. And indeed having a fast section in the slow movement must have been something of a surprise for the first listeners to the quartet (the quartets were commissioned by Prince Lobkowitz who employed Beethoven's friend, the violinist Karl Amenda, so we must imagine the premiere taking place in Lobkowitz's grand town house, Palais Lobkowitz in Vienna). The scherzo was full of delightful perky rhythms, with a trio which mixed sober, strong rhythms with more skittish elements, and the élan at the end of the movement was such that the audience, rightly, burst into applause. The finale was full of suppressed energy, which seemed to keep erupting with vitality and charm. And again, an ending full of élan and joy at music making.

The second work in the programme was equally joyful, Dvorak's American Quartet. Written during Dvorak's well-paid but short-lived sojourn in the USA (his homesickness and an American financial collapse put paid to it), the quartet is part of a group of pieces that the composer wrote whilst on holiday in Spillville, Iowa which was home to a large Czech immigrant community. The first performance of the work was a private one in Spillville where Dvorak was joined by his unofficial assistant Jan Josef Kovařík and two of Kovařík's children.

The opening movement was full of energy, but we could also admire Dvorak's imaginative textures in the string writing, something that I kept coming back to when listening to the performance. The second subject was quite intimate and Julian Leaper's playing in particular brought a highly folk-inflected sense to the violin writing, and again this was something I returned to later in the performance. But there were also contrasting moments, particularly in the development, where the players were really digging in. The plaintive and soulful slow movement melody was beautifully folk-inflect, first violin and then cello, and at times the group really fined their tone down, so that at the end the cello solo was positively haunting. We really felt the Czech-ness of the music (for all the quartet's name) in the third movement, full of inventive textures and mood changes. The final movement's tight rhythmic energy kept erupting into joy, with haunting episodes, and vivid energy at the end.

The Maggini Quartet in Battersea Park - Bandstand Chamber Festival (Photo William Marsey)
The Maggini Quartet in Battersea Park - Bandstand Chamber Festival (Photo William Marsey)

We had an encore, Puccini's Crisantemi intended to bring some 'Italianate sunshine' into the proceedings.

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