Wednesday 6 March 2024

Ian Venables' intense settings of John Clare at the centre of the Dante Quartet's Conway Hall concert alongside Gurney and Elgar

Brinkwells in the Surrey Hill, where Elgar wrote his Quartet
Brinkwells in the Surrey Hill, where Elgar wrote his Quartet

Beethoven, Ian Venables, Gurney, Elgar; Dante Quartet, Brian Thorsett; Conway Hall
Reviewed 3 March 2024

Venables' quartet of intense John Clare settings for the relatively unusual combination of tenor and quartet at the heart of this concert that often felt like conversation amongst friends

On Sunday 3 March 2024, the Dante Quartet was joined by tenor Brian Thorsett for a concert at Conway Hall that featured Beethoven's Quartet in F, Op. 135, Ian Venables' 1997 song-cycle, Invite to Eternity, four songs by Ivor Gurney in arrangements for tenor and quartet by Ian Venables, and Elgar's Quartet in E minor, Op. 38. Before the concert, I gave a talk introducing the works by Venables, Gurney and Elgar, all of whom have West Country links. The Dante Quartet was founded in 1995, and currently features Zoe Beyers, Ian Watson, Carol Ella, and Richard Jenkinson.

Beethoven's Quartet in F was his last major work, though it is on a smaller scale and written with a lighter touch than his other late quartets. The opening movement showcased the Dante Quartet's lovely responsive playing, this really was a dialogue between four players. The second movement was taken at quite a lick, full of crisp articulation with the cross rhythms adding a nice sense of instability, then the slow movement was quiet and inward, but with a hint of tension. The finale had civilised counterpoint disturbed by the motto theme, then gradually the screw tightened.

Ian Venables' Invite to Eternity features four poems by John Clare set for the relatively unusual combination of tenor and string quartet. The first movement, Born Upon An Angel's Breast (setting 'Love cannot die') began with intense, restless music for the quartet, followed by the tenor's plangent, almost unaccompanied entry. Thorsett's tone was beautifully clear and focused, and he brought intensity to the words. Venables' choice of Clare poems is neither light nor easy, and the work has an underlying tension and intensity. In An Invite, to Eternity, Clare's poem moves from the apparently inconsequential to something rather dark. Thorsett began with lovely even tone, full of lyric melancholy supported by restless music from the quartet, and throughout the movement the music followed the words' emotional journey. Evening Bells was an almost-scherzo, full of character and busy counterpoint from the quartet. The final movement, the work's longest, sets Clare's disturbingly existentialist poem, I Am. Intense, highly-wrought lines and lyric melancholy from the tenor moved between tortured harmony and quieter moments. The tension built then unwound, reaching a sort of resolution and calm.

After the interval we had three of Ivor Gurney's songs, By a bierside, In Flanders, Severn meadows and Lights Out, all written during the period 1916-1917. I have to confess that I found Venables' versions for tenor and string quartet intriguing, but that I did rather miss the piano. And the change in instrumentation seemed to bring a slight change of scale to the songs, and I did wonder whether Brian Thorsett was somewhat too reticent in his performances.

We ended with Elgar's Quartet in E minor, written in 1918 in a remarkable late flowering of chamber music (the Violin Sonata and the Piano Quintet date from the same period). This is music that has nothing to prove, it is what it is, and it reflects none of the uncertainties that Elgar had with his style going out of fashion, nor does it really reflect his underlying depression about the Great War. Instead there is a warmth which many speculate comes from the rest he found in the Surrey Hills.

The opening movement really felt like a conversation amongst friends, with strongly wrought phrases and an opening theme that almost had words. The music was intricate and restless with moments of surprisingly intimacy amidst tight drama. The slow movement, Lady Elgar's favourite, was full of lyrical warmth with a sense of multiple lines contributing to the whole, yet some highly wrought phrasing. There was character and drama aplenty in the final movement, though we didn't quite hear the galloping of squadrons that Lady Elgar professed to do. Full of vibrant tone, the players led us headlong to the end.

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