United Kingdom Haydn, Britten Brahms: Benjamin Grosvenor (piano), the Endellion String Quartet [Andrew Watkinson & Ralph da Souza (violins), Garfield Jackson (viola), David Waterman (cello)], Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 10.6.2014 (CS)
Haydn: String Quartet in G Op.76 No.1
Britten: String Quartet No.1 in D Op.25
Brahms: String Quintet No.1 in F Op.88
In 1987, the Endellion Quartet recorded Benjamin Britten’s complete music for string quartet (released by EMI, the set also included works such as the Three Divertimenti, the Phantasy for string quartet and the Phantasy for oboe and strings ~ review). In the intervening years, Britten has remained at the heart of the Endellion’s repertory and last November, Warner Classical released a new CD set of the three quartets and the Three Divertimenti.
On the basis of this exhilarating performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall of Britten first string quartet, it is easy to see why the recording was BBC Music Magazine’s Chamber Choice in January 2014. Thirty-five years of engagement with this music has led to a sense of intimacy with the score that it is not simply the familiarity that comes with precise knowledge, but one that is characterised by mutuality and deep affection.
Composed in 1941, during Britten’s extremely fertile American sojourn, to meet a commission from eminent patron of the arts, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, the quartet superficially adopts a traditional form, although Britten’s four movements constantly manipulate and extend the conventional formal schemes. The opening movement is a drama of opposition: conflicts derive from the juxtaposition of starkly contrasting tonalities and timbres. There is an almost operatic vigour to the musical arguments and antagonisms.
The technical challenges of this quartet are considerable but the Endellion are not afraid to take risks: tempi were fast, dynamics extreme, and changes of texture created a volatile mood. The tense, ethereal stillness of the translucent shimmer of the introductory Andante sostenuto – high violins glistening with passion above cello pizzicato – was shattered by the explosive energy of the Allegro Vivo. But, while the restlessness of the alternating material did not abate, there were moments of eloquence – first violin and cello in eloquent dialogue – and eeriness, Garfield Jackson’s viola melody injecting a note of eeriness.
The incisive staccatos of the Allegro con slancio began softly but gradually increased in force culminating in an explosive release of unison runs. Oscillating driving motifs and the intensity of Andrew Watkinson’s stratospheric first violin lines, always clear and true, created a violent energy which propelled the music to a slithering eruption at the close.
The Andante calmo re-established a tentative tranquillity and Watkinson’s floating melody had both delicacy and presence, the phrases long-breathed. The fugal Molto Vivace had a humour and folky vitality which seemed wholly ‘English’ – think Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra, for example, or Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite. The sound world of Peter Grimes was at times evoked, most especially in the viola’s rich song-like melodies, and the radiant major thirds of the climax which recalled the optimistic, bright Sunday Morning interlude. This was an enormously enjoyable and enlightening performance: I felt as if I was hearing the work for the first time, and discovering a masterpiece.
We started the concert in less ‘edgy’ territory, but there was still plenty to startle and amaze in the Endellion’s performance of Haydn’s Op.76 No.1, not least the way small details – a note or chord intensified through vibrato, the merest of perfectly co-ordinated pauses – were used to communicate the underlying structure. The opening three chords had an orchestral grandeur, but the ensuing contrapuntal conversation possessed the clarity and grace of intimate chamber music, and Watkinson’s seemingly infinite quaver runs danced lightly and fluidly. Intonation was perfect in the unison arpeggio passages.
The hushed mezza voce of the Adagio sostenuto drew the listener in, and the unfolding melody was elegantly nuanced within the quiet dynamic. As the lines expanded through elaboration the breathless tension of the start was released in a dynamic outburst before the music subsided once more, the warm closing utterances of the viola and cello ushering the movement to its conclusion.
The dry staccatos of the breakneck Menuetto – more of a scherzo – contrasted with the light-hearted folky Trio, as the Endellion demonstrated the humour in Haydn’s fusion of the highest forms of classical art with popular idioms. The final Allegro man no troppo was imbued with the spirit of opera buffa, and the Endellion’s ability to inhabit and convey diverse moods through musical contrasts made the Allegro compellingly ‘dramatic’.
After the interval, pianist Benjamin Grosvenor joined the Endellion Quartet for a stirring performance of Brahms’ Piano Quintet. It took Brahms much time and tinkering to determine the forces most appropriate for his material – the quintet was begun in 1862, designed for five stringed instruments and was remodelled as a sonata for two pianos in 1863, before being revised once more into its present form. From the opening bars of the Allegro non troppo the partnership between the piano and string ensemble was utterly convincing, the intellectual and musical affinity of the performers creating a captivating sense of grandeur and expanse. Multiple conversations ensued simultaneously and the movement between them was seamless. The textures were dense, but never heavy, the independent lines lyrical and clear; Brahms’ complex rhythms were precise, the cross-rhythms creating a driving heartbeat. Grosvenor’s prodigious technique enabled him to delineate the varied piano textures and idioms, and the brooding quality of the piano’s melodies and interchanges helped to cast a dark shadow over the material.
After such tempestuousness, the Andante’s swaying phrases exuded ease and joy. Grosvenor’s dreamy rocking motifs were wonderfully expressive, and the delicate string interjections beautifully phrased. In the central section the players enriched the tone and there was an almost Schubertian warmth, before Waterman’s deep bass line eloquently retraced the path to the main theme.
The Scherzo was menacing, the syncopated rhythms surging forward relentlessly, carrying the lyrical rising melody above insistent cello pizzicati, and bursting forth in a headlong chordal march. Grosvenor’s swinging left hand motif re-established order at the start of the Trio, but this was a brief respite before the power of the Scherzo reasserted itself. We cast eyes back (to Mozart’s ’Dissonance’ Quartet) and also perhaps ahead (to Brahms’ late Op.118 piano works) in the Finale, but the shadowy opening section soon gave way to great animation and tension. The performers gave fresh voice to each of the hugely varied musical ideas and themes, the energy building unrelentingly towards the magnificent close.
This concert was utterly compelling. So persuasive was the performers’ commitment, stamina and virtuosity that the two young children seated in front of me did not move a muscle throughout.