Endellion String Quartet – Wigmore Hall (31 March)

String Quartet in D, Op.76/5
String Quartet No.3, Op.94
String Quartet in F, Op.59/1 (Razumovsky)

Endellion String Quartet
[Andrew Watkinson & Ralph de Souza (violins), Garfield Jackson (viola) & David Waterman (cello)]

Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 31 March, 2004
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The gentle Allegretto of the Haydn with its siciliano theme and attendant variations ushered in another Endellion Quartet concert at the Wigmore Hall this year – part of the quartet’s 25th-anniversary celebrations. The thematic elaboration of this movement was handled deftly, particularly in the precipitous coda without the Endellion sacrificing its rich, full-bodied tone. The following Largo, one of Haydn’s most beautiful, was given a poised and eloquent reading – its descending chromatic figure casting a brief shadow, a portent of the Britten to follow. The minuet, recalling the lilt of the opening movement, could have been given a little more rhythmic definition, but the contrasting textures of the trio were nicely brought out. The final Presto also recalled the first movement’s pastoral mood, with accompanying fifths fore-grounding the dialogue between first violin and cello. Overall, I didn’t feel the sheer weight of the Endellion’s tone suited Haydn’s textures – maybe because I’m used to gut-string performances of this repertoire. But a beautiful reading nevertheless.

The spareness of Britten’s String Quartet No.3 made Haydn’s harmonies (apologies to Dryden!) seem positively cloying, and perhaps this was to a certain extent the Endellion’s intention – to throw the angular features of the Britten into even starker relief. Before performing the work, Andrew Watkinson talked a little about the circumstances of its composition. He said that at this stage, 1975, Britten was very ill, and owing to a problem with his shoulder had to use special manuscript paper (only two staves to a page). Watkinson seems to think this may have influenced the composition of the piece, with its “sparse orchestration” and intimations of death – although he had to admit to the extraordinary energy of the second and fourth movements.

And right from the opening ’Duets – with moderate movement’, initially between second violin and viola, we knew we were in for a treat. The Endellion projected this movement wonderfully, with its weird trills and pizzicatos floating against a backdrop of drawn-out sighs and dissonance, creating an aural equivalent of a Calder mobile. Then the opening chords of the Ostinato movement brought us back to earth with their Bartókian vigour, although again perhaps there was an intimation of mortality in the pizzicatos, which recalled the ticking of a clock. The following Solo movement counterpointed the first violin against the other instruments in turn; the final moments, with Watkinson’s first violin singing and trilling mournfully against whispering harmonics was sheer magic, the final chord floating into the light.

A muscular Burlesque then followed, giving one an impression of Britten pushing against the surface of his own mortality, like Michelangelo’s “Captive” striving to escape the marble. The performance of the beautiful final movement, the Recitative and Passacaglia (La Serenissima), could not be faulted. This veritable funeral march with its restful, unequivocally tonal end, immediately recalled for me Britten’s Nocturnal for solo guitar, where, after a set of highly characterised variations, that work comes to rest serenely on the basis for whole work: John Dowland’s melancholic “Come Heavy Sleep”. The words in the original song continue “…image of True Death”. Truly, the Endellion managed to get completely inside the Britten quartet. At the close there was stunned silence followed by thunderous applause.

After the interval, which did nothing to dissipate the effect of the Britten, cellist David Waterman with great beauty of tone and aptness of phrasing rendered the wonderful first subject of the Beethoven. As the development section progressed, with its symphonic effects, one became aware of the quartet’s mastery of bringing out the independence of the parts (here cut free from Haydn’s classical mould) and stressing thickness of texture where necessary; the group also managed to remind, with its wonderful opening rhythmic motif and ensuing elaboration, not to mention its sudden stretto-like modulations, of just how Schubertian the following Allegretto… sounds.

It was also unsettling to hear how the passage before the last chords recalled the Britten – the Adagio’s long appoggiaturas and trills and little cadenza-like passages calmed the mind before the raucous Allegro, which was marred only by a certain muddiness in the pizzicato accompaniments, perhaps as a result of trying to shape the phrases too much. But it was very fine playing nevertheless, with a wonderfully punctuated pedal point (reminding how far Beethoven had come from his erstwhile teacher, Haydn) before a serene return to earlier material and a last breathless gallop to the finishing post.

A final grumble: Beethoven’s middle quartets owe far more to Cherubini’s models (if you haven’t heard his quartets, do so – they’re a knockout) than to Haydn’s with their quasi-operatic rhetoric (this was also the period of Beethoven’s Leonore, which a decade later would become Fidelio), and they generally need to be ’sold’ a little more to the audience. Perhaps the Endellion relied on the strength of the music a little too much – not that the performance lacked conviction. I just felt there was a little dissipation of energy after the astonishing reading of the Britten.

All in all, a wonderful evening of contrasts and connections presented by master musicians: Haydn heralding Beethoven, Britten calling to mind late Beethoven, and Beethoven combining the two.

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