Hampstead and Highgate Festival 2006 – Allegri String Quartet

Quartettsatz in C minor, D703
Langsamer Satz
String Quartet No.11 in F minor, Op.122
String Quartet in A minor, Op.132

Allegri String quartet [Daniel Rowland & Rafael Todes (violins), Dorothea Vogel (viola) & Pal Banda (cello)]

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 17 May, 2006
Venue: The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead, Church Row, London, NW3

The Allegri is now Britain’s longest-lived string quartet, formed in 1953 (before anyone in the present group was born). Daniel Rowland is the most recent recruit, having replaced Peter Carter as first violin in 2005.

The musicians’ sound is exceptionally clean and clear. Their style is polished and refined. The approach is cool and classical. Their regard for the music is meticulous. What they presented was clearly the result of extended discussion over quality, timbre, volume and style. Individual components – notes, unison and chords – were often highlighted with a sense of deliberate calculation. As a result, many moments shimmered with heightened vitality – telling contributions to the music’s overall momentum and structure.

This attention to detail mattered particularly during the Shostakovich quartet. Often the bustle is punctuated by a short, piquant reminder of mortality – a sudden stab of pain. Equally, a painful dig in the ribs wakes one up from the lassitude of a bleak, cheerless lament.

This is not to say that the Allegri has regard for detail at the expense of structure. The handling of the biggest structural challenge of this programme was a triumph: the third movement of Beethoven’s Opus 132 – the Adagio. This was a tour de force of elegiac gravity. The song of thanksgiving in the Lydian mode opened earthily enough, implying the Beethoven’s recovery from severe illness. The song then progressed to ethereal rapture, as the soul greeted its further lease of life. Almost imperceptibly, the playing lightened, in a gentle forward movement of sustained sublimity. You can’t produce that effect without a firm grasp of the music’s underlying structure.

There was heart in the playing, too. The melodic sections of the Quartettsatz were sturdily affecting. Warmly and richly, too, the Allegri conveyed the leisurely lusciousness of Webern’s Langsamer Satz commemorating the idyll of a walking trip up a valley in Lower Austria with his wife to be. The introductory movement of the Shostakovich took a little longer than usual, too – creating time to establish melancholy as part of the somewhat tight-lipped lament. In the Beethoven, I was time and again carried forward on a wide-arching romantic swell, surging towards a leaping climax of emotion.

Above all, though was the Allegri’s intensity of performance. Each moment, each movement, was highly charged. I recalled the Smetana Quartet whose members chose to play from memory in order to release a driving, knife-edge sensibility. The Allegri Quartet played with the same commitment, concentration and effect.

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