Schubert, Bartok, Mendelssohn: Benyounes Quartet, Zara Benyounes ( violin), Emily Holland (violin), Sara Roberts (viola), Kim Vaughan (cello), Brunswick Methodist Church, Swansea, 21.5.2011 (NHR)
Bartok, Quartet no. 2
Mendelssohn, Quartet no. 2 in A minor, op. 13
This concert was promoted by the organisation Crwth (pronounced ‘crooth’). The word refers to a medieval Welsh instrument, a kind of lyre played with a bow. Since 1999 Crwth, set up by artistic director Peter Morgan, has played a very significant role in the musical life of Swansea and its region. Not only has it put on chamber concerts featuring among others the Coull Quartet, the Welsh Camerata, the Ensemble Eos, and soloists such as the soprano Elin Manahan Thomas and the pianist Young Choon Park; it has staged workshops and demonstrations for schools and community groups at a variety of venues in South Wales. It is also a prominent supporter of contemporary music, having included in its programmes works by Christopher Weeks, Michael Parkin, Adrian Williams and many others. As with many such regional organisations, struggling for funding in straitened times, and with a loyal but regrettably small band of regular supporters, the work done by Crwth deserves the highest praise. The venues are never the most palatial, the marketing budget never seems to stretch far enough for many new punters to be attracted, and yet the standard of music-making sponsored by the hard work of volunteers never falters.
The recital by the Benyounes Quartet was a case in point. It’s astonishing how many fine young quartets there are around at the moment, and this all-female ensemble is both particularly youthful and particularly fine. They are all recent graduates of the Royal Northern College; they have already appeared at the Aldeburgh and the Verbier festivals, and they are currently holders of the Julian Isserlis prize. They played here with passion and confidence: there was a free lyrical rapture in Schubert’s Quartettsatz, and the ferocious virtuosic demands of the Bartok were negotiated with aplomb. Of course there is scope for development, just as there should be. There was some occasional roughness at the edge of the playing – not that Bartok’s Second should be smooth, exactly – and passages where the collective tone was not so precisely established as it will be. I think also I missed the eerie hauntedness I have heard before in the final movement of the Bartok; perhaps the sense of space between phrases was not yet fully under command. Nonetheless it was a cogent and persuasive performance – the musicians are already strong, energetic communicators on top of their technical accomplishment.
They caught the spirit of the Mendelssohn quartet perfectly. The still-teenage Mendelssohn was immersed in Beethoven’s late quartets at the time, and there are numerous moments of homage: at times the work seems a thoughtful, respectful imitation of gravity on the part of someone naturally high-spirited – even a sketch of stoic resignation from the near bank. There is also rich melodic variety, and periods of distinctly un-Beethovenian skittishness. The Benyounes projected all of this with a really winning combination of ardour and exuberance. Do catch one of their forthcoming recitals if you can – dates and venues are listed on their website www.benyounesquartet.com (a website well supplied with pictures, but containing for some unaccountable reason hardly any information about the actual quartet members).