The Art of Fugue, BWV1080 – Contrapunctus I
String Quartet No.8 in C minor, Op.110
Ocho Tientos, Op.35 – No.5
String Quartet in A minor, Op.51/2
Simón Bolívar String Quartet [Alejandro Carreño & Eduardo Salazar (violins), Ismel Campos (viola) & Aimon Mata (cello)]
Reviewed by: Richard Landau
Reviewed: 8 September, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall
The opening of Southbank Centre’s International Chamber Music Season featured the Simón Bolívar String Quartet, its members from the ranks of the eponymous Orchestra, and not surprisingly – given their training within ‘El Sistema’ – they are very committed artists. The violinists and the violist played standing, a relatively unusual occurrence that made for an extra degree of contact with the audience and offered ample evidence of their sheer physical enjoyment of music-making.
The short Contrapunctus from The Art of Fugue immediately showed what richness of tone all four players are capable of, the music given a simple and flowing reading, lyrical, and avoiding academicism.
Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet (dedicated “In remembrance of the victims of Fascism and war”) was given a very personal interpretation. The opening Largo was more meditative than bleak, heightening the impact of the ensuing Allegro molto, which was maybe a bit too frenetic, its impact akin to a particularly propulsive performance of the (already-composed) Tenth Symphony’s scherzo. With some deeply intense playing, the tragic nature of the remaining movements was never in doubt.
To open the recital’s second half, music by Rodolfo Halffter (1900-87), Spanish-born, and belonging to the Halffter dynasty of composers, but becoming a Mexican (anti-Franco) citizen after the Spanish Civil War. The Fifth of his Ocho Tientos proved a brief and witty piece, full of Bartókian energy, delivered with aplomb.
The Second of Brahms’s pair of string quartets that form his Opus 51 was given a heartfelt performance, but one that could at times have had a tad more energy and drive, especially in the first movement. This was a little too indulgently done, but the approach worked well in the romantic Andante moderato, whose dramatic middle section had just the right contrastive effect. The animated quality of the scherzo that lies within the lovely Quasi Minuet movement was satisfyingly caught, and the tensile vivacity of finale, especially with such richness of tone on display, took the work to an uplifting close.
As an encore was the Mexican composer Manuel Ponce’s song “Estrellita”, in an arrangement that gave each musician an opportunity to shine.