Goodison Quartet No.4

La bonne chanson, Op.61
Goodison Quartet No.4 “In my craft or sullen art” [Commissioned by Nicholas and Judith Goodison: world premiere]
String Quartet in A, Op.41/3

Petersen Quartet [Conrad Muck & Daniel Bell (violins), Friedemann Weigle (viola) & Henry-David Varema (cello)]

Mark Padmore (tenor)
Andrew West (piano)

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

Reviewed: 15 May, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

A series of string quartets with voice has been commissioned to bring together both young and established artists to perform them, with the fourth, by Huw Watkins, here receiving its première. The single-movement piece comprises two settings of the Dylan Thomas poem “In my craft or sullen art” separated by an extended passage for string quartet alone. The music conjures the supposed emotions of the poem, defiance being the predominant theme. Whether or not the singing voice was required (it would have done just as well as a spoken melodrama) it was the playing and the music that caught the attention. A minimalistic opening, with notes skipping between instruments, made for an introspective introduction to the work, alluding to ideas of desolation and emptiness and mirroring the text.

The poem deals with a man who is writing not for the “towering dead” nor the “proud man” nor even for “ambition or bread”, but, rather sadly, for those who “[do not] heed my craft or art…”. One wonders if Huw Watkins is making his own defiant stand against unfriendly critics! The reason the piece would have done as a spoken melodrama was because the singing sounded like practice for an elocution lesson. It was very harsh and difficult to listen to. The second setting of the poem was more reflective and, towards the end, sounded like a depressing, though good, Shostakovich string quartet. There was plenty for the players to do, with some lacerating textures from the second violin during the transitional passage.

Watkins’s work was preceded by Fauré’s “La bonne chanson”. It was written originally for voice and piano, a version Fauré preferred over this “superfluous” one with added string quartet. With so much happening it was rather hard going. Mark Padmore’s singing was sufficiently descriptive but there were moments when his projection failed to carry even in this Hall. Perhaps because this was the opening piece, it felt cold; consequently there was a lack of engagement amongst the ensemble. It took a while but things came together in the third song ‘The white moon’, which was dreamy and in possession of a love-song quality. Elsewhere, the lack of engagement was evident in ‘In truth, I am almost afraid’, which sounded jolly, and the penultimate ‘Is it not so?’, which seemed like there was nothing to discover.

If the pre-interval pieces were tough going, then, by welcome contrast, the Schumann was an unqualified joy. It found the players giving a totally committed performance. From the gentle sighing of the falling-fifth motif that appears at the beginning and passing through to the brisk march rhythms that close the piece, the Petersen Quartet proved how good an ensemble it can be while playing very powerfully as individuals. In particular, Daniel Bell excelled in the ostinato passages of the slow movement, which had just the right amount of penetration; the close was serene and magical. Elsewhere, there was a merciless relentlessness towards the end of the second movement that was brought under authoritative control. The finale offered suitable relief before a terrific coda. Overall, there was not a single moment’s loss of concentration.

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