Hampstead and Highgate Festival – Carducci String Quartet

Haydn
String Quartet in D minor, Op.76/2 (Fifths)
Vaughan Williams
String Quartet No.2 in A minor
Horovitz
String Quartet No.5
Beethoven
String Quartet in C minor, Op.18/4

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


Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 13 May, 2008
Venue: Christ Church, Hampstead Square, London NW3

Carducci String QuartetRecently, the Carducci String Quartet was up-and-coming. Now, the quartet is hot property, shrewdly issuing CDs under its own label.

The programme had two components – late-eighteenth-century works and two from the twentieth-century. Vaughan Williams composed his Second String Quartet when in his seventies (1942-4). It is dedicated to Jean Stewart, violist in the Menges Quartet. The viola initiates each movement – the dark tone that could only come from a viola, through to sounds closer to a violin but lower pitched and creamier. Eoin Schmidt-Martin took this celebratory responsibility most seriously and effectively. The work’s dark, rich hues were imbued with richness of the Tallis Fantasia and, at the same time, had a brooding restless uncertainty (a tussle between E minor and F minor, says John McCabe). The work has depth and beauty – and received a performance to match.

Joseph Horovitz, now aged 82, came to Britain from Austria 70 years ago. His one-movement String Quartet No.5, dating from 1969, celebrates the 60th-birthday of E. H. Gombrich. The Amadeus Quartet gave its first performance. The work is an affirmation of the Viennese origin of Horovitz, Gombrich and the Amadeus. We begin with a statement of the chromatic dodecaphonic colouring associated with Schoenberg, Berg and Weill – presented with some disdainful detachment. Horovitz’s programme note clarifies succinctly: “Healthier diatonic discords tear into these themes … and, in a way, finally cleanse them … there is a link between the survival of humanity and the constant affirmation of the tonal system.”

The Carducci players recognised all this, bringing out very clearly the opening decadence, the astringent tussling during developmental discord and the serene appeal of the close, allowing entry to a degree of sweetness, held under restraint. Matthew Denton and Michelle Fleming conveyed the astringency, while Eoin Schmidt-Martin and Emma Denton provided the geniality.

Neither the Haydn nor the Beethoven made much sense to me. The prevailing tone of both communicated the intense, rapid life-attitude of someone who lives on his nerves. This music was staccato, ungracious, terse, abrupt, leaping idiosyncratically from one idea and mood to another, unable to settle or to make solid reasoning of what they are doing at any particular time.

There was one, glaring exception: the opening theme to the slow movement of Haydn’s ‘Fifths’ Quartet. This was played with style – with steady, affirmative pulse rather than the prevailing nervy edginess of life lived by the metronome. In this context, however, the theme’s elegance stuck out like a sore thumb, coming over as sardonic pastiche.

Music is the voice of its composer. The performers’ task is to seek and find that voice. The Carducci Quartet succeeded gloriously with Vaughan William and Horovitz. With Haydn and Beethoven there was no sign that intelligible discourse had taken place.

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