Compelling Performance of Colin Matthews’ Fourth String Quartet

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Colin Matthews, Schumann, Mozart: Michael Collins (clarinet), Elias Quartet, Wigmore Hall, London, 14.11.12 (GD)

Colin Matthews: String Quartet No. 4 (2012, world premiere)
Schumann: String Quartet in A major Op. 41 No, 3
Mozart: Clarinet Quintet in A major, K581


Colin Matthews’ new quartet is closer to his second quartet in scale taking just over 16 minutes to perform, but like the second quartet and the more expansive third quartet (lasting nearly 35 minutes) his latest quartet makes allusions to other quartet/musical styles – Fauré and Ravel, in particular. The work opens ‘Pesante ma con bravura’ with quasi ‘stretto’ fugal figurations; this element is later conjoined to other material and variously fragmented or transformed into contrasting material. The ‘Quasi habanera’ re-works ideas from the opening movement and second movement ‘Allegro leggerio’, and is re-cast rhythmically and harmonically in the quartet’s later movements/sections. As in his second and third quartets Matthews incorporates various musical genres: a quasi-barcarolle rhythm in the ‘Andante’, and in an absolutely original and compelling way with the pizzicato chorale sequences at the end of the ‘Esitando’ section marked ‘Solenne’. Matthews creates a wonderful tone with his ‘Menuetto spettrale’ (spectral minuet) in the ‘Allegretto’ just before the coda. It is a kind of spectrality which is both illusive, undecided, but also radiantly clear in texture and well defined by the Elias Quartet. The A section marked ‘Musette’, with allusions to to Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin, leads to ‘Largamente’ which eventually concludes the work after a fortissimo tone of C in which all four players resoundingly concur.

Overall I had the impression here of a wonderful range of contrasting themes ideas/styles which, however, were contained in an incredibly economic compositional form/structure. There were traces of Benjamin Britten’s mercurial economy, and I even heard formal cross-overs with the String Quartets of Elizabeth Maconchy, an unjustly neglected English composer. But as I said these similarities can be seen more as allusions, or probably more accurately, traces . The quartet came over as resolutely in Matthews’ own original composing style. Needless to say the Elias Quartet gave a most sensitive and compelling rendition obviously working in close collaboration with the composer who appeared on stage after the performance to join in with the warm audience response/applause.

It was a delight to hear Schumann’s A major Quartet, the third of a trio of quartets Op.41. It is quite amazing that Schumann’s string quartets are still relatively neglected when compared with say his ever popular Piano Quintet Op.44. The A major quartet is arguably the most radiant and harmonically developed of the Op.41 set. In it we hear Schuman engaging in all manner of innovations which depart from, even subvert, the classical quartet form. In the relaxed opening of the first movement the sighing falling fifth which dominates was magically intoned tonight. Schumann abandons the usual ‘second subject’ here, and replaces it with an extended development, only reaching a quasi second subject in the home key before the coda, almost as a compensatory gesture. The second movement, really a scherzo marked ‘Assai agitato, is also a departure from the classical model in the form of four variations on a restless theme in F sharp minor. The third movement is a rocking D major adagio which is taken over by a powerfull waltz of almost orchestral texture, developed and elaborated before the coda, which is full of harmonic contrasts carrying the movement to a serene close in the major. The Elias realized these astonishing inovations – for the time – with consumate understanding, really relishing the ravishing waltz theme and its rich textures. The dotted rhythms which conclude the Adagio form the energetic and spirited rhythmic figure which opens the boisterous finale in rondo form. The inclusion of a gavotte-like quasi trio in F is just one of Schumann’s parodies, his beloved Florestan ( from the masks of the ‘Commedia dell’arte) answering the Eusebius of the Adagio, as it were. The coda is reached only after some surprising, and bold tonal shifts and turns. The Elias Quartet played in total accord with Schumann’s idiom. It was only in the fantastic finale that I felt there was a slight lack of tension, drama and rhythmic thrust heard superbly in the Hagen Quartet’s recording and various concert performances. But this was mostly made up for by the Elias’s superb articulation of transitions and realisation of Schumann’s wonderful and lavish sound-scape, at times sounding truly ‘orchestral’.

It is well known that the clarinet was one of Mozart’s favourite instruments. He deligted in its velvety,sensual tone colour, its fluency, its flexibility. A delight that is reflected in his wonderfully varied writing for the female operatic voice But what is less commented on is that the clarinet was for him also an instrument which represented harmony, fraternity and friendship related of course to Mozart’s engagement with Enlightenment Freemasonry – a much more progressive and open institution than it is today. I mention this theme of friendship, even intimacy, because this was the impression I had of tonight’s performance of the great A major Clarinet Quintet, a pleasurable musical engagement with a group of players as friends and equals. Of course this harmony among equals, the clarinet never playing as a soloist, is written into the score. It is really more a concertante work in the sense that the clarinet is integrated into the musical texture in the most perfect fusion with the string quartet. The quintet, as a late composition, is also a paradigm of formal perfection, as with the Clarinet Concerto K622, the ‘Jupiter’ Symphony K 551 and the less often played, but wonderful, Clarinet Trio K 498.

Tonight the wonderfully flowing A major opening Allego seemed to play itself – the art of interpretation which conceals interpretation – very much in evidence here, as in the whole work. Although the quintet comes over as an eminently relaxed and happy work, there are some very subtle harmonic shifts, as in the coda to the first movement with its succession of arpreggio chords on animated harmonic progresions leading from C major to the opposite pole in F sharp major. All this was compellingly articulated tonight without a hint of any underlining emphasis. The second movement, Larghetto in D major develops into a sequence of melodies where the clarinet unfolds and glides above muted strings, before entering into dialogue with the first violin in perfect euphony. – a wonderful of example of the above musical mentioned engagement/dialogue with friends as equals. The third movement, a minuet with two trios, the second of which recalls the folk dances of Southern Germany was executed with style and finesse; similarly the finale with its deveolpment of six variations was beautifully realised. I was particularly impressed by the way the Adagio section, in which the bewitching vocal line of the Larghetto re-appears, was so compellingy inflected and sustained, as was the coda, where the rondo comes full circle with the return of the opening theme.

Tonight Michael Collins used an instrument adapted to the extended range originally encompassed by Anton Stadler, for whom Mozart wrote the concerto. Stadler,one of Mozart’s friends, would almost certainly have played on a basset clarinet. But the autograph scores are lost and it is usual now to deploy a clarinet modified for the wider tonal/textural range Mozart asks for especially in the lower registers. There are many fine recorded versions of this ever fascinating work, but I don’t know of any which surpass Collins in tonal diversity and in the sheer musicality heard tonight as an equal among the friends of the superb Elias String Quartet.

Geoff Diggines.