Tuesday 29 November 2022

Barbican Quartet in Haydn, Bartok and Schumann at Conway Hall

Barbican Quartet (Photo Andrej Grilc)
Barbican Quartet (Photo Andrej Grilc)
Haydn, Bartok, Schumann; Barbican Quartet; Conway Hall Sunday Concerts
Reviewed 27 November 2022

Folk-influenced modernism from Bartok in a compelling programme that began with Haydn's experimental classicism and ended with warmly imaginative Schumann

Sunday 27 November 2022 saw the Barbican Quartet (Amarins Wierdsma, Kate Maloney, Christoph Slenczka and Yoanna Prodanova) performing a programme of Haydn's Quartet in F 'The Dream' Op.50 No. 5, Bartok's Quartet No. 4 in C, and Schumann's Quartet in A Op. 41 no. 3 at Conway Hall's Sunday Concerts Series. Beforehand I gave a pre-concert talk on Bartok and the String Quartet, putting the composer's six mature quartets in context. These are works that have an important role in Conway Hall's history too, as the 1949/50 season of the Sunday Concerts saw the first UK performance of a complete cycle of Bartok's quartets, just four years after the composer's death.

The Barbican Quartet was formed in 2015 at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and this year welcomed a new second violinist Kate Maloney. Also this year, the quartet won first prize in the 71st ARD International String Quartet Competition (as well as being awarded price for Best Interpretation of the commissioned work by Dobrinka Tabakova) and third prize at the Bordeaux International String Quartet Competition.

We began with Haydn's Quartet in A from 1781. The opening movement introduced us to a sense of civilised conversation between four participants, the engaging performances making you really want to listen, whilst as the piece developed the music grew in intensity. The slow movement featured solo rhapsodies from the first violin, Amarins Weirdsma, against strong tuttis almost like a sort of operatic dialogue, whilst the minuet was graceful but with strong moments. The finale began with quiet intensity, with a sudden, vividly played loud passage signalling the end of the work. The Opus 50 quartets were some of Haydn's more experimental works in the genre, less obviously written for public consumption, and in this performance, the Barbican Quartet drew out the music's fascination with a real ensemble feel.

Next came Bartok's String Quartet No. 4 from 1928, a work which came at a time of political upheaval in Hungary but there was musical upheaval too. In 1927 Bartok heard Berg's Lyric Suite for the first time and his two quartets from 1927 and 1928 would reflect this new musical world and would lead directly to his mature works from the 1930s such as the Music for strings, percussion and celeste

The quartet is in five movements, in the arch form that Bartok used a lot. The first movement was vigorous and intense, full of timbres and colours with the players creating a compelling sense of dramatic dialogue. The second movement was equally compelling but quiet and intense, full of disturbing scurrying, this might hint at Night Music, but it certainly wasn't comfortable. The central movement began with a lovely cello solo over sustained strings, whilst more rhapsodic moments drew out the drama, finally, the cello returned but the surroundings were irrevocably changed. Bartok uses a lot of folk elements here, yet the music remained consummately his own.  The fourth movement was all pizzicato, a vivid dance that moved from quiet to strong colours. The final movement began with all out attack vibrant and compelling with rhythms that were to our ears almost jazz but came from folk music.

We ended with Schumann's third quartet, with the slow introduction seducing us into the music, followed by a movement of immediacy and grace. And again, we had that sense of four people in dialogue. The slow movement's theme, with its gaps between the notes, created a sense of imbalance amidst the elegance, and Schumann's imagination took us through transformations of that were by turns vividly dramatic, intimate and rhythmic. The minuet was full of a lovely warmth, counterbalanced by moments of tension, a feeling that combining the complex with the intimate. The finale was all controlled energy, with contrasting episodes leading to a vividly energetic conclusion. 

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