Navarra String Quartet at Kings Place – Haydn, Vasks & Brahms

String Quartet in C, Op.33/3 (The Bird)
String Quartet No.3
String Quartet No.1 in C minor, Op.51/1

Navarra String Quartet [Magnus Johnston & Marije Ploemacher (violins), Simone van der Giessen (viola) & Brian O’Kane (cello)]

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 10 February, 2013
Venue: Hall One, Kings Place, London

Navarra String Quartet. Photograph: Sussie AhlburgMaking its debut at the London Chamber Music Series at Kings Place, the Navarra String Quartet was to have given the first performance of a work by James Francis Brown, but its non-appearance saw it replaced with the Third String Quartet (1995) of Pēteris Vasks. Not the only composer to have had his 15 minutes of relative fame, after to become better known through recordings rather than performances, the Latvian continues to pursue his effective synthesis of folk-inflected elements within a musical language broadly in the Shostakovich tradition – confirmed by the driving impetus of the present work’s scherzo-like second movement and the more febrile stages of its finale. Elsewhere a meditative atmosphere tends to predominate, whether in the alternately ethereal and hymn-like opening Moderato or the sustained yet often anguished Adagio, before the work ends in a mood of eloquent though hardly unequivocal calm. A fine showing from the Navarra musicians, their recent recording of this and other string quartets by Vasks (Challenge Classics) is worth investigating.

Proceedings had opened with the third of Haydn’s Opus 33 string quartets – a set which can seem a little lacking in ambition in the context of the more innovative Opus 20 series, though the charms of the present piece cannot be gainsaid. Thus the twittering accompaniment of the first movement’s opening theme, deftly underlining ‘The Bird’ connotations, or the presence of what might have passed for popular songs of the day in the scherzo. If lacking the last degree of distinction, the Adagio remains a masterclass in the gradual elaboration of pithy thematic elements, while the finale is a characteristically rapid rondo with the first violin uninhibitedly setting the pace.

The highlight of the evening, though, was the account of Brahms’s C minor String Quartet (1873). A piece that all too often commands respect without any real emotional involvement, it emerged here as among the most questing and combative of the composer’s middle-period chamber works: above all, in the outer Allegro movements whose densely woven counterpoint along with their narrow intervallic range can seem claustrophobic if the textures are not rendered with absolute clarity and the subtlest degree of expressive rubato – exactly what was in evidence here. The inner movements, too, can all too easily cancel each other out if their complementary moods are not precisely defined, but the Navarra players brought out the wistful eloquence of the ‘Romanza’ as surely as they did a whimsical elegance in the ensuing intermezzo with its ruminative manner briefly dispelled by a pert central trio. A life-long admirer of the work, Schoenberg would surely have approved of a performance that encouraged enjoyment as well as admiration.

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