String Quartet in G, Op.77/1
Quintet for Horn and String Quartet [Rodewald Concert Series commission: world premiere]
String Quartet in D minor, D810 (Death and the Maiden)
Sacconi Quartet [Ben Hancox & Hannah Dawson (violins), Robin Ashwell (viola) & Cera Berridge (cello)]
David Pyatt (horn)
Reviewed by: Glyn Môn Hughes
Reviewed: 12 October, 2011
Venue: St George’s Hall, Liverpool
The new McCabe work was introduced by the composer. He explained how important the horn is to him. He has written several works for it including a concerto, a trio (with violin and piano), and a triptych of works for horn and piano. Earlier in his career, John McCabe, as pianist, accompanied the late Ifor James, one of the horn’s finest exponents, in dozens of recitals. So he is well-placed about writing for this notoriously unforgiving instrument.
The composer having warned us that the work is a bit of a challenge, it turned out to be disarmingly listenable and engaging, balancing the power of the horn with the deftest and most-subtle string-quartet textures. Playing continuously for 25 minutes, the Horn Quintet disclosed its shape very readily. From a ghostly opening the strings developed motoric rhythms, which called to mind the energy of Michael Tippett’s early string quartets. Although at times McCabe uses the horn to punctuate and dominate the texture, he also makes expressive use of other effects – pungent stopped notes, growling low ones, as well as very soft writing and contrasting ostinatos. At one moment, in the slower music, the horn declaimed in almost chant-like fashion while the strings wheeled around it in clusters.
McCabe suggested there is A Midsummer Night’s Dream programme to the two rather ghostly, quicksilver scherzos that burst out of the extended slow movement. Between these Queen Mab-like episodes we were treated to a duet for horn and viola set against birdlike trills in the other strings. These Shakespearian episodes are interrupted by an abrupt entrance from the viola which ushers in the fast one-in-a-bar finale. Furious activity ensues with a return of earlier motor rhythms in the upper strings with the horn galloping alongside in an almost traditional hunting role. The tally-ho subsides giving way to a magical, ethereal ending, the horn and cello descending to a quiet held unison C, an elegiac and effective ending to this stunning new piece – surely soon to be in all horn-players’ saddle bags.
David Pyatt (LSO co-principal) was coolness personified, making the most of this remarkable vehicle in the horn chamber-music repertoire; his sound, phrasing, articulation and tuning were near to perfection. The string parts are no less challenging, not least for the cellist; high-up harmonics and double-stopping were impeccably played by Cara Berridge. Just after the start, violin and cello are heard in unison in their highest register in Messiaen-like reflection and ecstasy. However, to even mention other composers seems unfair, for this is no derivative work. On the contrary, it presents the listener with an ideal balance of challenge and fulfilment, dissonance and euphony, which is John McCabe at his best – engaging, active, occasionally gritty, as well as witty.
To start the concert, the Sacconi Quartet delighted in Haydn, distinguished by clean, classical playing, often with sparing vibrato. Both in Haydn and in Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’, the leader’s delicate phrases with only the occasional mistuning were matched in the ‘Death’ second movement by finely balanced chording and blend from his colleagues. Overall, the Sacconi Quartet is a young group to watch out for.