Tuesday 5 April 2022

'Ghostly stuff' - the Tippett Quartet and Emma Abbate in Elgar's Piano Quintet at Conway Hall

Sir Edward Elgar by William Rothenstein in 1919 (courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery)
Sir Edward Elgar by William Rothenstein in 1919
(courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery)
Haydn: Quartet in D minor Op. 103, Brahms: Quartet in C minor Op. 51 No. 1, Elgar: Piano Quintet; Tippett Quartet, Emma Abbate; Conway Hall
Sunday 3 April 2022

The Tippett Quartet's last concert, before things went crazy in early 2020, was for Conway Hall's Sunday Concerts Series (a programme that included a new work by Freya Waley-Cohen) and the quartet returned to the hall on Sunday 3 April 2022 for a programme that moved from Haydn's last quartet, the unfinished Quartet in D minor Op. 103, Brahms' first published quartet, Quartet in C minor Op. 51 No. 1 and Elgar's Piano Quintet in A minor Op. 84, with pianist Emma Abbate. The quartet consisted of John Mills and Jeremy Isaac, violins, Daisy Spiers, viola and Bozidar Vukotic, cello, with Daisy standing in for the quartet's regular viola player Natalie who was recovering from an operation.

And before the concert, I gave a pre-concert talk, It 'runs gigantically and in a large mood', filling in some of the background to Elgar's remarkable group of late chamber music works.

We began with Haydn, two movements from a quartet that he never finished; perhaps because he was getting too old, but also perhaps because he felt overshadowed by his pupil Beethoven's recent quartets which were making waves in Vienna. The Opus 103 quartet and Haydn's previous quartets all have a retrospective feel, looking back a the tradition of the Viennese quartet. We heard two beautifully crafted movements, the first graceful and well-made with the players giving a lovely depth to the sound. The second, strong and quite sober and intense, some way from a traditional Scherzo, but with strong rhythms.

Brahms' Opus 51 quartets were not published until he was 40, and reputedly he had destroyed some 20 previous attempts such was his worry about the weight of history, notably Beethoven and Schubert. But from the opening notes of Opus 51, no. 1 it was clear that we were well into new territory. Plunging into the stormy drama from the outset, the playing was full of rich colours whilst you sensed the quartet's control and pacing of the drama across the movement, balancing moments that were headlong with brilliant intensity alongside times when everything pulled back. The Romanze was strong yet tender, again with a palate of rich tone colours, and contrasting intimate, thoughtful moments. The Allegretto brought a sense of constant movement with some delightful folk influences in the trio. For the final movement, we returned to the storms of the opening, intense and highly wound up leading to a terrific climax.

After the interval the quartet was joined by Emma Abbate for Elgar's Piano Quintet, one of a group of four works written in the quiet of the Sussex countryside in 1918 and 1919, with the composer recovering from a major operation but also escaping wartime London and the depression that that was causing him. The works Elgar wrote there include his three mature pieces of chamber music, the Violin Sonata, the String Quartet and the Piano Quintet. The quintet is a large piece (hence his comment in a letter that it 'runs gigantically and in a large mood'), in just three movements, expansive and distinctive; certainly Elgar, but it does not feel as if he is simply recycling earlier inspirations.

The evocative and strongly characterised introduction rather recalled Elgar's description of the movement as 'ghostly stuff' (according to Lady Elgar it was inspired by a local legend), but we moved into more vigorous territory when the main Allegro started, with a lovely delicacy to the second subject. This was very much not a mini-piano concerto and Emma Abbate's playing was often poetic, contrasting finely with some full-blooded string playing. We had vigorous drama in the development, and some more wonderful ghostly moments in the recapitulation. The local legend had referred to Spanish monks, struck by lightening for sacrilegious practices, and the delicate, dance-like quality of the second subject gave me unlikely images of Spanish monks dancing in the woods of Sussex!

The second movement opened with a very Elgarian tune on the viola, developing into a richly expansive and intense drama. The final movement had moments when we returned to the atmosphere of the opening, but contrasted with a rich sound and vigorous playing, along with a sense of impulsively pressing on. A terrific finale, but it was those ghostly moments that stayed in the memory.

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