String Quartet in G, Op.76/1
Twisted Blues with Twisted Ballad [world premiere]
String Quartet in A minor, Op.13
Belcea Quartet [Corina Belcea-Fischer & Axel Schacher (violins), Krzysztof Chorzelski (viola) & Antoine Lederlin (cello)]
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 7 December, 2010
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
The reunion three years ago of Led Zeppelin prompted a degree of interest (not least in the acquiring of tickets) that could not have been sustained had it been the start of a longer-term collaboration. Which is not to say that its legacy cannot continue to exert influence, and not least in areas of music-making that might previously have been thought too far removed from that of a band which largely defined the parameters of rock-music over the period from the death of psychedelia to the birth of punk. A legacy to which Mark-Anthony Turnage has recently turned his attention in his string quartet Twisted Blues with Twisted Ballad (2008) – written during the aftermath of his ‘conversion’ at that much-anticipated gig at the O2 Centre and which was only here receiving its world premiere by the Belcea Quartet (with further performances in Cologne, Amsterdam and Vienna in the next few days).
Relatively modest (24 minutes) in its dimensions, the quartet (Turnage’s second, though he chose to answer the question posed by his first of two decades ago – Are You Sure? – in the negative) wisely does not attempt a crass overview of the Zeppelin catalogue; rather confining itself to two archetypal though highly distinct songs. Thus the first movement, ‘Twisted Blues’, is a series of variants on “Dazed and Confused” – a wide-ranging blues from the band’s 1969 debut album (having been tried in concert with guitarist Jimmy Page’s earlier outfit The Yardbirds) – its sectional format here abandoned for a free fantasia on its component vocal and guitar parts, and one whose tensile chromaticism is powerfully emphasised by the remorseless amassing of energy: a rare instance, so far, of the classical medium taking on rock music at its own game and earning an honourable draw.
The second movement, ‘Funeral Blues’, utilizes no Zeppelin numbers though its darkly sensuous tone – enhanced by a spontaneity of instrumental interplay and the ‘death-watch’ effect of tapping onto the body of the instruments – has an authentically blues-derived quality, as well as confirming Turnage’s new-found ease with quartet-writing. The final movement, ‘Twisted Ballad’, is a series of reflections on “Stairway to Heaven” – the epic ballad taken from the band’s 1971 fourth album and which remains its signature number. While Turnage stays faithful to the song’s textural and dynamic accumulation, he eschews its calm inevitability of progress for a vibrant contrapuntal discourse where the indelible main tune is heard in increasing plangent terms – culminating in fractious exchanges then a final chordal assault: the majestic poise of the original replaced here with something altogether more ambivalent.
The result is no mean triumph for Turnage (whose recent orchestral music has suggested a certain coasting, albeit stylishly, into middle age) and also for the Belcea Quartet – not an ensemble previously noted for its advocacy of new music, but which had the measure of the work’s extremes of introspection and violence. Whether it marks any new direction in the composer’s output or, indeed, encourages others to be more creative in their handling of non-classical sources, remains to be seen: for now, its visceral immediacy warranted an enthusiastic response from a capacity house – and rightly so.
The new piece was framed by standard fare, which term hardly does justice to the innovative nature of either. While not the most imposing of the sequence, the first of Haydn’s Opus 76 quartets is notable for an Adagio of sustained rapture and a Minuet whose scherzo characteristics are so pronounced as to render the designated title meaningless. The Belcea members did justice to both as well as to the alternately genial and trenchant outer movements. Mendelssohn’s A minor quartet, a marvel of the medium and probably the crowning achievement of his adolescence, received a spacious and responsive performance – one which did not combine the movements into an overarching continuity, but pointed up the myriad motivic interconnections with unforced insight. Allusions to an early song which frame the whole were eloquently rendered – anticipation yielding, as it must do, to acceptance.