Monday 9 January 2012

Sacconi Quartet - Haydn, Bartók, and Schubert, 8 January 2012

Hall One, Kings Place

Haydn – String Quartet in G major, op.77 no.1
Bartók – String Quartet no.3
Schubert – String Quartet in D minor, D810, ‘Death and the Maiden’

Ben Hancox, Hannah Dawson (violins)
Robin Ashwell (viola)
Cara Berridge (cello)

Founded at the Royal College of Music in 2001, the Sacconi Quartet here celebrated its tenth anniversary: astonishing to register, given how youthful its members look. Quartet in Association at the RCM and Quartet in Residence at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre, on this occasion, the Sacconi Quartet renewed its association with both Kings Place and the London Chamber Music Series, which holds its concerts there on Sunday evenings.

Haydn seems an obvious quartet composer to include for a celebratory concert, but there was nothing routine or dutiful about this performance of his op.77 no.1, ‘Lobkowitz’ quartet. The first movement was alert, vivacious, characterful in its treatment of the different themes, and clearly the product – audibly as well as visually – of careful listening to each other from every member of the quartet. Its cultivated sound never drew attention to itself, for joy and the communication of formal concision were very much the order of the day, though never didactically so. The Adagio flowed nicely: if the tempo were perhaps closer to Andante, or at least what I should consider to be an Andante, far more important was an excellent understanding of harmonic rhythm. Haydn’s harmonic surprises registered fully – and with wonder. If the minuet – a scherzo in all but name – sounded close to Beethoven, that is only because it is. The hiccoughing syncopations of the first violin part were wittily despatched without exaggeration by Ben Hancox. Turbulence and remnants of rusticity were well balanced in the trio. The finale captured splendidly Haydn’s quality of ‘learned popular’ style, just as in the finale, say, to the ‘London’ Symphony. This was a thrilling and delightful Presto, but through communication of the musical material, as opposed to mere speed.

Bartók’s Third Quartet received a fine performance too. All the ‘effects’ were there: the frozen opening, glassy interjections, col legno playing, and so on. Yet one realised from the outset that these were not really ‘effects’ at all, but musical necessities in an integrated performance. Concentration, both inner and formal, was to the fore. And what lyricism Bartók reveals: tender and exultant. Refraction and sublimation of folk material in the opening to the ‘Seconda parte’ were vigorous, yet always as alert to melody as to rhythm. Perhaps the Sacconi Quartet’s performance lacked the last degree of abandon, but there is nothing wrong with a relatively Classical approach. Contrapuntal clarity was certainly a beneficiary.

A far from inflexible vehemence marked the opening of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet. My only cavil was that I occasionally missed that painful Viennese sweetness some ensembles – the Amadeus Quartet, for example – have imparted to the more lyrical passages. Instead, the Sacconis tended towards Mendelssohn-like feather-lightness here: a contrast of its own, of course. The restrained opening of the slow movement variations sounded as if a stately dance from another time: a hint of the viol consort, prior to blooming – though never with the tonal refulgence that more Romantically-inclined ensembles might bring to the music. Again, a Mendelssohnian lightness was to be heard, especially during the first variation, though it was certainly not without its more passionate moments. The variations were all well characterised, with apparently increasing freedom, culminating in a quietly serene final variation, with intriguing hints of Dvořák. A vehement scherzo underlined the return to D minor, its trio duly graceful. The finale proved a tense, rhythmically insistent saltarello, troubled even in its more lyrical passages. Here the players brought a renewed intensity to the music, a heightened sense of tragedy. As an encore, we were treated to a beautiful, committed performance of Josef Suk’s Meditation on an Old Bohemian Chorale, op.35.