Kreutzer Quartet – Music by Thomas Simaku

String Quartet in G minor, Op.10
String Quartet No.2 (Radius)
String Quartet No.3 (Voci Celesti)
String Quartet in G minor, Op.27

Kreutzer Quartet [Peter Sheppard-Skaerved & Mihailo Trandafilovski (violins), Morgan Goff (viola) & Neil Heyde (cello)]

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 6 July, 2007
Venue: The Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield, City of London

The Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great dates from 1123. Ancient stones and centuries-old faces of beruffed gentry constitute a time-honoured yet intimate setting for quartet-playing before a small, rapt audience.

The house-style of the Kreutzer Quartet was utterly appropriate. The musicians’ playing was lean and spare, dedicated and intense, spirited and considered. Considerable rhythmic drive impelled the music forwards – with, in the modern mode, whiplash emphases at significant moments and sparing rubato. The quartet’s members were not afraid to fiercely pluck, nor almost inaudibly whisper or caress. Equally, they produced hushed sonorities whose tender resonance opened us to a sense of man’s fragility and reverence.

Debussy’s Quartet received an admirably clear performance – crystalline, eschewing any hint of Mediterranean splendour or atmospheric, Impressionistic furriness at the edges. Quite unexpectedly, I was reminded instead of the craggy, stoic, coolness of Sibelius’s ‘Voces Intimae’. This was Nordic Debussy, then. It had the warmth of a wintry sun and the sharp-edged clarity of sunlit snow.

Thomas Simaku’s string quartets have much to commend them – though I would have preferred a longer time-span than a 15-minute interval between each. Unquestionably modern in style, these works are nevertheless accessible. They are unashamedly grounded in the tradition of quartet-writing – and, as such, constitute a halfway-house for which people who find, say, Bartók alien and grating. There are moments of stridence, but they did not seem unremitting here.

Simaku has a keen ear for the texture of sounds. He writes sympathetically and perceptively for strings, taking full advantage of the varying timbres in their individual sonorities. His collective, co-operative statements could be loud and stern or soft and laid-back. An inner core of firmness, self-acceptance and repose underpin a series of animated explorations, almost imperceptively. This stability renders sound free to soar and experiment.

Both quartets are one-movement works. The earlier (2003) has perhaps a little more meat to it. The Second (2005) reminds me predominantly of the energy of the breeze – the power that causes leaves fallen in autumn to swirl and flurry. These ‘voices from heaven’ have an animated serenity, quite secular, outside time. There is, I think, an individual voice of some quality here – one that I would care to hear again. Good news that Naxos has recorded these works for future release.

The Grieg was a fantastic event. Peter Sheppard-Skaerved had been at some pains to tell us that Thomas Dunhill (of Eton College and the Royal College of Music) had loftily castigated Grieg for daring to write a string quartet lacking in the high seriousness requisite for such a work.

Sheppard-Skaerved and his Kreutzer colleagues then proceeded to demonstrate exactly how vigorous, varied and innovative Grieg’s writing is. This is pre-eminently a Nordic quartet. There are a few moments of sombre, settled darkness but the music is characterised by a scurrying, restless, nervous lightness. It was played as a modern work – and responded to such treatment. It had awkward, vibrant rhythms – some swirled the long, dark nights away restlessly, while others skipped in gaiety that was quite mordant. This was a performance to remember.

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