Vale of Glamorgan Festival – Two Days of String Quartets

26/05/2019

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Vale of Glamorgan Festival [3]- String Quartets (various composers): Armida Quartet. (PCG)

21.5.2019

Ewenny Priory, Vale of Glamorgan

Dobrinka TabakovaOn a Bench in the Shade
Sofia Gubaidulina – String Quartet No. 1
Robert Fokkensflutterings, splinterings, becomings
Franghiz Ali-ZadehMugam Sayagi

22.5.2019

Penarth Pier Pavilion

Arvo PärtSumma
Pēteris Vasks – String Quartet No. 3
Johannes Fischercanons and sparrows
Steve ReichDifferent Trains

In the first of two programmes, the Armida Quartet and the Vale of Glamorgan Festival transported us to the remote (at any rate, by public transport) Ewenny Priory. Despite its isolation, the body of the building was packed on a beautiful summer evening. A bold red notice attached to a wall as we entered enjoined us to beware of ‘Danger’; but there was nothing dangerous, and much to stimulate, in the music we encountered.

The opening On a Bench in the Shade, a descriptive tone poem by Dobrinka Tabakova, did not have the sheer beauty of her orchestral Organum Light which we had heard on the first day of the Festival. Still, it clearly came from the same quarter, and it radiated a sense of rapt stillness that was only occasionally disturbed by chattering Janáček-like figuration. The central section then featured a more extensive melody over sustained harmonies, before the two strands were joined in a final combination.

Tabakova’s work served rather to overshadow Sofia Gubaidulina’s first quartet. It was at one time regarded as iconoclastic and condemned as ‘irresponsible’ by Soviet cultural commissars but now sounded somewhat dated – despite Shostakovich’s advocacy at the time of its first performance in 1971. The mewling glissandi at times came indeed very close to the sounds produced by Ravel’s cat in L’enfant et les sortilèges in both style and the shape of the phrases. Although later the dangerously exposed use of artificial harmonics was well served by the resonant acoustic of the abbey, and the explosive pizzicati were explosive indeed, there seems (after nearly half a century has elapsed) to be a lack of real profile to the music. The composer’s insistence that the players should progressively move their chairs backwards towards the corners of the stage, doubtless novel at the time, now seemed too purely like a gimmick. It made no difference to the sound and merely distracted the attention of the audience from what the other players were actually delivering at the time.

After the interval we heard the first performance of Robert Fokkens’s flutterings, splinterings, becomings. I had complained about the fashion for composers to avoid giving capital letters to their titles but in this instance it did seem to have a tangible point. It emphasised the almost tentative manner in which the music began – a decided uncapitalised opening. The work packed a lot of thematic interplay into its six movements, the first two of which developed the initial ‘flutterings’ into some quite violent ‘splinterings’. The third movement then allowed these splinterings to slow down, and to surround themselves with an expansive melodic line which rose to an impassioned climax before dying away: the emotional core of the work. After that the fourth movement was almost scherzando-ish with its playful treatment of the dance-like material. The final two movements then consolidated all these elements by increasing augmentation of the rhythm, with a sense of ‘becoming’ indeed. The work was enthusiastically received by the audience.

The programme notes associated Franghiz Ali-Zadeh with Gubaidulina as a composer who fell foul of the fashion for Soviet realism, but her Mugam Sayagi, written in 1993 after the collapse of the USSR, demonstrates her more complete absorption at that date of western avant-garde influences when combined with traditional music from her native Azerbaijan. At the opening, she very daringly isolates the cellist alone on stage, repeating a phrase over and over again while gradually being shadowed by echoing counterpoints from a distance; this is an example, unlike Gubaidulina’s quartet, of spatial dimensions legitimately employed to magnificent effect. When the other three players did eventually join the cellist on stage, the second violin and viola sometimes detached themselves to add accompaniments on triangle, gongs of two different sizes, and drums. All that sometimes served to propel the music forward and at other times threatened to drown it. There also was a moment when the composer seemed to consciously imitate the overlapping ostinati at the beginning of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. That parallel was emphasised by the use of a synthesiser, but the only point at which its intervention was clearly audible was the provision of background chords to some of the more discursive sections of quartet music. Then again, the Oldfield ostinati are generally part of the lingua franca of musical tonality, so the similarity is probably coincidental. At the end of the work, the cellist, once again abandoned on the stage, played his melancholy phrase over and over as even the distant echoes of the other players died away – leaving, in the acoustic of the abbey, a miraculously atmospheric impression.

The Ali-Zadeh piece had originally been commissioned by the pioneering Kronos Quartet. They had also commissioned Steve Reich’s Different Trains which was the principal item in the second Armida concert the following evening. This began with a performance of Arvo Pärt’s Summa in the version for string quartet, which oddly enough might have sounded better in the ecclesiastical acoustic of Ewenny Priory than in the more analytical Penarth Pier Pavilion. It is a very beautiful piece, no matter where performed, and the clarity and warmth with which the players delivered the notes was exquisite.

Summa was followed by the fifth and most recent string quartet by Pēteris Vasks, who is often lumped together with Pärt under the unkindly soubriquet of ‘holy minimalism’. His sound world is decidedly different, though, with at once more emotional warmth and a more remote sense of rapture. In point of fact, the first movement of this quartet was unexpectedly vigorous, with a Janáček-like sense of propulsion. The contrasted chorale-like passages with their Sibelian overtones had a forward momentum, even when they were simultaneously at their most radiantly expansive. By contrast, the second of the two movements was a sublime meditation of the kind that we associated with Vasks, and even the more agitated central section did little to cloud the sense of mystery and rapture.

After the interval, we heard a new work by Johannes Fischer entitled canons and sparrows. Here the reason for the lower-case title was totally obscure. In fact, the programme note informed us that the piece, written by a composer who has a parallel career as a percussionist, had reference to the German saying ‘mit Kanonen und Spatzen schießen’. The saying (literally meaning ‘to shoot with cannons and sparrows’) is usually equated with the English phrase ‘to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut’. Even if we allow the pun – ‘canon’ for ‘cannon’ – it seemed to me that the music itself consisted of a whole series of esoteric effects without any rhyme or reason. The two violins first imitated the repeated chirping of sparrows for minutes on end with an insistence that defied tolerance, eventually interrupted and superseded by scurries of activity where the ‘canonic’ element was for all practical purposes inaudible and was not assisted by the employment of bird-whistle warblings. Eventually, towards the end, we did encounter some genuine canonic material in the shape of a literal quotation from Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge, which emerged from the texture for no apparent reason and then was overwhelmed. The whole piece struck me as a total waste of the talent of the players, whose delivery of the miscellaneous effects demanded by the composer nevertheless compelled admiration. In all fairness, I must add that the audience, perhaps enchanted by the novelty of the instrumental effects, seemed to enjoy the piece much more than I did.

The performance of Steve Reich’s Different Trains then served, at any rate to my mind, to demonstrate conclusively how special effects can be employed in the service of a unified and comprehensive ideal without descending into the realms of simple parody. The work, in three linked movements, takes the notion of rail travel during the period around the Second World War. It begins with the luxurious Pullman cars of 1930s’ American trans-continental railroads, which are then contrasted with horrific effect to the cattle trucks conveying Holocaust victims in Europe to extermination camps. A final movement then contrasts a post-war spirit of hope for the future with the voice of a railway official, referring to the trains of that era; it delivers the phrase ‘they are all gone now’ with a sense of weariness that extends the metaphor to the fate of humanity itself. Apart from the players of the solo string quartet themselves, the score also calls for a tape combining pre-recorded sounds of multiple string players with spoken phrases and fragments of phrases which are taken up in musical terms and elaborated by the quartet.

Reich originally implied that the actual spoken phrases which generated the music were arrived at in an almost serendipitous manner. In an informative talk before the concert, Pwyll ap Sion disclosed that research among Reich’s papers and documents at the Paul Sacher Institute had revealed how he had deliberately phrased his questions when he conducted his interviews for tape so as to elicit specific words and phrases that he wished to use. This revelation merely serves to increase one’s respect for the composer, who had so clearly conceived the desired effect before actually writing the music. And the effect is overwhelming. The use of taped voices and pre-recorded instruments might be seen to constrict the scope for interpretation for the live players in the quartet, especially at points where almost more seems to be happening musically on the tape than on the stage. In this performance, however, the sounds coalesced into a total blend of sound that not only seemed to be perfectly judged but also appeared to liberate the players themselves to deliver their emotional commentary with searing passion. Indeed, the sounds that they produced throughout both these recitals were a model of commitment, with a richness of tone that totally banished any unworthy thoughts that a string quartet could ever sound undernourished.

In a review of the opening concerts of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival’s fiftieth anniversary season, I observed that with continued commitment from audiences we ‘can look forward with confidence to a further fifty years of discovery’. The commitment is certainly there. The quite substantial auditorium of the recently refurbished pavilion at Penarth Pier was packed to capacity with an enthusiastic audience. They clearly enjoy the contemporary music they hear, and trust the judgement of the artistic director John Metcalf to furnish performances of works which inspire, enthral and sometimes provoke.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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