Nightingale Quartet at Milton Court – Langgaard, Shostakovich & Beethoven

String Quartet No.3, BVN183
String Quartet No.3 in F, Op.73
String Quartet in E minor, Op.59/2 (Razumovsky)

Nightingale Quartet [Gunvor Sihm & Josefine Dalsgaard (violins), Marie Louise Broholt-Jensen (viola) & Toke Moeldrup (cello)]

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 12 March, 2014
Venue: Milton Court Concert Hall, London

Nightingale Quartet. Photograph: nightingalestringquartet.comThe chamber recitals currently being held in the spacious concert hall at Milton Court will hopefully become a staple of the London calendar – not least in bringing to our attention such notable ensembles as the Nightingale Quartet.

The group has so far centred its activities on the String Quartets of Rued Langgaard (1893-1952), the Danish composer whose sprawling output takes in the extremes of radicalism and conservatism – of which the Third (1924) is definitely in the former camp. Unlike most of his earlier such works (their numbering is hardly indicative of their chronology), this was not the product of sustained soul-searching but was written in just a week for a controversial premiere that yet led to its publication and occasional revival (the Kontra Quartet gave a memorable account at St John’s, Smith Square in 1987). The climax of his progressive phase, the String Quartet No.3 fairly embodies the discontinuities as well as the contradictions that proved Langgaard’s undoing: here they are deployed over a work whose three movements yield an emotional experience greater than its 15 minutes might suggest.

The Nightingale musicians had the measure of an explosive initial allegro which is barely relived by the passing hint of lyricism, then brought palpable commitment to the brief scherzo with its fearsome pizzicato writing, and then a finale whose underlying anguish is overcome by a fervour more of desperation than of resolution. This in itself might explain why the composer, having here arrived at a powerfully modernist idiom that could have been sustained over the next decade, chose to abandon it forthwith for the inconsistent and reactionary approach of his music over the ensuing fifteen years. While such a failure of nerve might be regretted, works such as this remain to show what had been achieved, and it is to be hoped other ensembles will follow the lead of the Nightingale (the first two volumes of whose Langgaard survey are now available on the Dacapo label) in giving this music the attention it evidently deserves.

If the rest of the programme was less convincing, this was partly through the unavailability of the Nightingale’s regular cellist. Although her replacement was evidently a fine musician, his being a ‘stand-in’ inevitably had an inhibiting effect on the other players while they tackled Shostakovich and Beethoven. The former’s Third Quartet (1946) was at its best in an opening Allegretto whose agitation allied it more closely to the remainder of the work than is often the case; and an Adagio whose passacaglia format emerged flexibly and often eloquently from its austere beginnings. Before this, however, the intermezzo and scherzo movements lacked the last degree of irony and brutality, with the lengthy finale a little too headlong in its underlying tempo for its climax to summon the requisite intensity, or for the closing pages to sound privately intense rather than merely becalmed.

The second of Beethoven’s ‘Razumovsky’ String Quartets (1806) also suggested a worthwhile interpretation in the making. The Nightingale members brought no mean rhythmic impetus to its opening Allegro, though the consoling second theme needed a little more expressive room to manoeuvre while the omission of the second-half repeat was regrettable – as without it, the formal balance between this, the slow movement and the combined scherzo and finale is lost (as Beethoven knew, hence his marking its inclusion in the score). The Adagio had no lack of rapture even though its inwardness could have been more fully conveyed at an even slower tempo, while the subtle distinction between the scherzo’s furtive main theme and more relaxed trio was less than it might have been. The finale then found a viable balance between capriciousness and that angular concentration which sees the work through to its febrile close.

Make no mistake, the Nightingale Quartet is to be reckoned with and the present recital underlined its potential in the standard repertoire as well as providing the opportunity for a London audience to experience a Langgaard chamber work at first hand. Hopefully the Nightingale will return (with its regular cellist) – and should it bring another work by the Danish composer, then so much the better.

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