United Kingdom Haydn, Brahms: The Benyounes Quartet: Zara Benyounes, Emily Holland (violin), Sara Roberts (viola) Kim Vaughan (cello). Reardon Smith Theatre, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, 5.2.2012. (GP)
Haydn, String Quartet in F major, Op.77, No.2, Hob. III:82
Brahms, String Quartet in A minor, Op.51, No.2
I had heard and read much praise of the Benyounes Quartet, as one of the finest and most promising of young British string quartets, but hadn’t had the opportunity to hear them until I was able to attend concerts by them on successive days. On the evening of Saturday 4th February the Benyounes played in Swansea, as part of the series of concerts arranged by Crwth (see http://www.crwth.org.uk/), when their programme consisted of the two quartets above, plus the Debussy Quartet. The next morning they gave the concert detailed above as part of the monthly series of chamber concerts organised by Cwpanaur. Since I am a Trustee of Crwth and might therefore be thought parti pris if I were to review one of that organisation’s concerts, my comments are very largely concerned with the Sunday morning concert detailed above.
Hearing both concerts left me feeling that the praise of the Benyounes Quartet that I had previously met was wholly justified. Here is a young ensemble (and they can’t really be quite as young as they all look, surely?) with a marvellous unity of approach, a sureness of intonation, a discipline and a spirit, an all-pervading sense of musicality, that makes them highly listenable already and surely promises even more in the future.
Their Haydn playing was quite outstanding. This quartet was the last that Haydn completed and I am very much inclined to agree with Cobbett’s judgement that it “is perhaps Haydn’s greatest instrumental composition” (at the very least it is one of a handful of candidates for such a title). As such, it is a kind of supreme ‘test piece’ (though, of course, musically it is much more than just that) for any quartet. And the Benyounes Quartet certainly passed the test. In the opening allegro moderato they brought a comfortable assurance to Haydn’s lucid development of his thematic materials, and there was a balance of grace and substance that caught the spirit of the movement well-nigh perfectly; their playing breathed that air of naturalness and ease which is, of course, the fruit of much hard work. In the ensuing menuet they made thoroughly dancing sense of the rhythmic interplay between binary and ternary patterns; the logic of Haydn’s unexpected choice of key (D flat major) in the trio was understood and made clear. The beautiful andante, which opens with an Italianate duet for first violin and cello, was finely played, exquisitely phrased – perhaps even more in the Swansea performance than in this in Cardiff, perhaps because the smaller hall in Swansea allowed a greater intimacy. In the finale (marked vivace assai) the Benyounes responded both to the infectious inventiveness of the writing and the underlying weight of thought, both elements simultaneously present in their articulation of the Hungarian inflections of its version of the polonaise. A delight from beginning to end, full of that light seriousness / serious lightness which is so characteristic of the best of Haydn.
The greater darkness of Brahms’ second quartet proved a greater challenge, though not one entirely that defeated the Benyounes – not by any means. There is an emotional gravity, a degree of real melancholy and pathos, in parts of this quartet, to which these players will give even fuller expression, I suspect, in later years; so, for example, the melancholic darkness of the andante’s principal theme partially eluded the quartet but they still found considerable beauty in the writing, and the close of the movement was played with delicate expressivity. The counterpoint of the final movement was at times more correct than vivacious, but when the rhythms of czardas and waltz were at the forefront of the music, the playing was infectious and the momentum irresistible and the very Brahmsian cross-rhythms brought out the best in this young musicians. Even if there is room yet for the Benayounes reading of Brahms to mature further, this was already a performance that many more experienced quartets would struggle to match, intelligent, purposeful and articulate.
I look forward to future opportunities to hear the Benyounes Quartet again. Already very accomplished, it will surely be very rewarding to follow their future development.