Carducci Quartet & Charles Owen at Wigmore Hall – Haydn, Elgar & Franck

String Quartet in E flat, Op.33/2 (The Joke)
Piano Quintet in A minor, Op.84
String Quartet in D

Carducci Quartet [Matthew Denton & Michelle Fleming (violins), Eoin Schmidt-Martin (viola) & Emma Denton (cello)] with Charles Owen (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 18 January, 2010
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Carducci String QuartetThe Carducci Quartet has clearly established a rapport with Wigmore Hall audiences, to judge from the reception given to this ambitious programme. Not that Haydn’s ‘Joke’ Quartet is one of his most radical, but it is among his most inimitable: how else to explain the witty asides of its first movement, lithe animation of its scherzo (among the composer’s first), the listless interludes of its Largo or the host of false endings in its finale? Suffice to add that the Carducci did it full justice, not least those closing pages in which virtually all of the audience had been caught out by the end.

The other two works are both highpoints of chamber music from the late-Romantic era. Although his three such pieces from the end of the First World War tend to be viewed (with the Cello Concerto) in largely valedictory terms, Elgar’s Piano Quintet is as alive and demonstrative as any of his pre-war output. Something that was not lost on the Carducci Quartet; its members, along with Charles Owen, had the measure of the first movement’s finely-wrought energy as well as the simmering unease of an introduction that informs the musical discourse at strategic points. The expressive fervour of the Adagio was impressively sustained (strange to think Elgar’s writing for the medium has often been called into question when he could come up with movements such as this), while the finale had no lack of that commanding yet never overbearing rhetoric which swept the work through to its exuberant close.

If the performance of César Franck’s String Quartet was not quite so fine, it should be remembered that this constitutes one of the toughest challenges in the repertoire – in which latter it has remained largely thanks to French ensembles, thus making the Carducci’s advocacy the more gratifying. The expansive opening movement had no lack of overall momentum, though the follow-through from the development to the reprise felt a little too reined-in; moreover, the lengthy introduction that gives the whole work its cyclical impetus did not seem fully integrated into what followed. That said, the players rendered the scherzo with alacrity, its deftly-applied wit finding appropriate contrast in the wistful trio. Nor was the Larghetto undersold, particularly in the elaborate ensemble-writing of its climactic stages such as refutes any thought of Franck not being at home in the quartet medium. In amalgamating elements from each of its predecessors within another elaborate design, the finale makes the toughest demands of all: the Carducci players did not quite avoid all of its formal pitfalls but the sheer ardour of their response, abetted by unanimity of ensemble, were never less than convincing.

Another fine showing, then, for one of the most impressive of the UK’s younger string quartets and – with discs of Graham Whettam, Joseph Horovitz, Brian Boydell and Philip Glass to its credit, one of the most versatile too. Maybe some of this music will feature in the Carducci’s next visit to Wigmore Hall?

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