United Kingdom Mozart, Janáček: Caveleri StringQuartet: Anna Harpham, Ciaram McCabe (violins), Ann Beilby (viola), Rowena Calvert (cello). Reardon Smith Theatre, National Museum, Cardiff 20.11.11 (GPu)
Mozart: String Quartet in B flat, K.589
Janáček: String Quartet No.2 (Intimate Letters)
There is an abundance of good young British quartets at present – the Elias, the Carducci, the Barbirolli – to name but a few. How many of them will survive in the medium- to long-term is anyone’s guess. The sheer number of such quartets competing for what will, in the present economic climate, surely be a declining number of bookings, seems likely to ensure that for economic reasons alone many of these quartets will, sadly, probably not survive. (Leaving aside all the other thousand natural shocks that a string quartet is heir to). The Cavaleri Quartet, who made their Purcell Room debut in 2008 and first played at the Wigmore Hall in 2010, clearly has some qualities that ought to make it one of the candidates for survival.
In this particular recital they were heard at their best in their performance of Janáček’s second quartet, which they played with a full proportion of passionate intensity, coupled with strict adherence to matters of technical and ensemble discipline. The expressionist contrasts of Janáček’s music were very well articulated, the violence of the emotional contrasts, the sense of inner conflict. When the playing of the quartet was at its most perfectly integrated – as in the adagio second movement – the illusion was successfully created that the four instruments were embodiments of the contrary impulses, judgements and emotions of Janáček’s conflicted self. One heard the interplay of line and the shifting instrumental textures as enactments of a powerful psycho-drama. In the opening andante the competing idioms were very effectively distinguished and the technical demands were met with real assurance and certainty, without any less of expressive momentum. In the moderato third movement, there was much to admire and enjoy; fierce accents were placed with a precision that was never merely pedantic or precise for precision’s sake but which, again, communicated the startling, even disturbing, emotional honesty of the music. Both the driven energy of some parts of the movement and the passages of quiet intimacy (so often in close proximity to one another) were given their full weight and the relationship between them was always clear and persuasive. The opening pages of the final allegro were invested with an almost manic quality of the dance, the later parts of the movement balancing a sense both of the music’s illusion of near-abandonment and of Janáček’s absolute self-awareness and control. This was a compelling reading of a challenging quartet, a reading which gripped the listener from beginning to (emotionally exhausted) end.
The Mozart which preceded the Janáček was rather less satisfying, unfortunately. K. 589 is one of the quartets Mozart wrote in response to a commission from Friedrich Wilhelm II, King of Prussia and which, for ‘tactical’ reasons contained a particularly prominent part for the cello – the King’s instrument. The Cavaleri’s cellist, Rowena Calvert, did all that the music asked of her; her playing, in particular, of the opening melody of the second movement was especially beautiful. But the quartet as a whole didn’t really find and sustain a plausibly Mozartean idiom. While one doesn’t want to go back to the days of ‘porcelain’ Mozart and doesn’t want to overlook the emotional range and power of mature Mozart (and this, like the Janáček quartet is a late work), yet a performance that had as many jagged edges as this one did necessarily fails to capture the particular grace of Mozart’s music – that grace which co-exists with the expressiveness. For all the well-judged balance of ensemble sound, one missed a real responsiveness to the wit of the third movement (which was a bit on the ponderous side). The closing allegro assai was the most persuasive of the four movements, where there was a more idiomatic vivacity and where the weight of sound was varied with greater meaning and judgement than in the opening movements. Here, too, there was a clearer enunciation of Mozartean line and phrase. There were, that is to say, good things in the Mozart, but there were also things that were somewhat disappointing. The performance of the Intimate Letters was altogether more sure-footed, altogether the product of a more absolute certainty of idiom and mutuality of purpose. It was here that the Cavaleri Quartet most forcefully put its musical case for survival.