United Kingdom Haydn, Vaughan Williams and Beethoven: Sacconi Quartet [Ben Hancox & Hannah Dawson (violins), Robin Ashwell (viola), Cara Berridge(cello)], King’s Place, London, 5.10.2014 (CS)
Haydn: String Quartet in F minor Op.20 No.6 (Hob. III: 35)
Vaughan Williams: String Quartet No.1 in G minor
Beethoven: String Quartet in A minor, Op.132
This was an impressively mature and focused performance by the Sacconi Quartet, characterised by clarity and consistency of purpose, technical assurance and considerable stamina. Such features were notably evident in an absorbing presentation of Beethoven’s complex late quartet, the Op.132 in A minor, in the second half of the concert, in which there was a confident spaciousness and masterful appreciation of the musical form. But, first came brooding Haydn and more whimsical Vaughan Williams.
The opening measures of Haydn’s Quartet in F Minor Op.20 No.5 possessed an emotional intensity which was sustained throughout the four movements and which powerfully conveyed what the musicologist Roger Parker has termed the new ‘aesthetic weight’ which characterises the Op.20 set. The strange, eerie harmonies, shifting textures and angular lines had a plangent quality which deepened the inherently ‘dark’ resonances of the minor tonality. While first violinist Ben Hancox maintained an elegant melodic line, the lower strings’ repeated quaver motif injected a note of restlessness. As the material unfolded, the Sacconi made much of the ever-changing combinations of voice and over-lapping registers, relishing Haydn’s constant development and creating a strong sense of the architectural breadth of the movement. The unsettling harmonies of the coda expanded startlingly across the wide compass of the four instruments, before a concluding return to the potent quiet of the opening bars.
There was a crisp cleanness about the short Menuet, despite the complexity of the supporting textures; the major mode Trio provided a brief episode of simplicity. Hancox’s elaborate variations unfolded stylishly in the third movement Adagio, if with a slight reserve and without flamboyance, and the Sacconi were able to sustain the melodic flow despite the broad tempo. The vigorous fugal invention of the Finale was a dramatic intrusion following the quiet beauty and poignancy of the Adagio: the ceaseless counterpoint (this is a fuga a due soggetti, a double fugue based on a familiar motif, ‘And with his stripes’, from Handel’s Messiah) was robust and rhetorical, each voice equal in the imitative interplay. This was an imposing display of Sturm und Drang temperament.
Vaughan Williams’ first string quartet bears the mark of the influence his teacher, Ravel, with whom the English composer studied in 1908; indeed, he began composing the quartet immediately upon his return from Paris although it was not premiered until November 1909 (and later revised in 1921). Vaughan Williams was three years Ravel’s senior, but he later declared his great debt to the French musician who had taught him to orchestrate ‘in points of colour rather than in lines’ – although it is just as much in the harmonic colours as the textures that we can hear an impressionistic sensibility.
The Sacconi Quartet were wonderfully alert both to the textural effect – emphasising the rarefied nature of the sul ponticello and sul tasto episodes – and to the score’s sophisticated chromatic twists and turns. The folk-like contours of Robin Ashwell’s opening viola melody were richly complemented by strong pizzicati from Hannah Dawson and cellist Cara Berridge, the asymmetrical rhythms gently challenging the surety of the melody, before Hancox dispensed with a fragile accompanying gesture and assumed the melodic mantle, rising with clarity and grace. Such ebb and flow, as the four voices took turns to move to the fore and retreat, was typical of the Sacconi’s innate sense of balance and ensemble throughout. The intonation was rock solid, even in the challenging double-stopped passages, and the over-lapping cross rhythms were articulated with precision. A strong sense of forward movement was maintained, without the tranquillo mood ever being disturbed, and the diminishing crotchets of the closing bars span ravishingly into silence.
The ensuing Minuet was playful and airy; the opening unison announcement was followed by the first violin’s light-spirited dance, with incisive pizzicati beneath enhancing the nimble ambience. Ashwell’s sweet-toned solo in the Trio, and the repeating-note crotchets of the accompanying strings, offered a brief moment of placidity and restraint, before the spirited return of the dance swept formality and detachment aside. The folky modality and languorous unfolding of the Romance comes as something of a surprise after the bright ebullience of the second movement, and the Sacconi played with a searching, yearning quality which was highly affecting. There was some particularly beautiful interplay and conversation between first Hancox and Dawson, and then the two middle voices; the textures were warm but never overly dense. The fizzing energy of the final movement, Rondo Capriccioso, was charmingly infectious.
Then, on to Beethoven. This was an astonishingly assured and mature reading – the Sacconi may have been playing together since 2001, but the consistency of shared vision and musical voice was still remarkable, and suggested a deep, shared penetration of the work’s musical and philosophical arguments.
The motto which opens the slow introduction – with its symmetrical pairs of semitones, one rising the other falling – was thoughtfully placed with calm and composure; and I was pleased that the players did not overly emphasise the slight swell that Beethoven indicates in the fourth measure. This allowed the introductory bars to grow organically into the first violin’s virtuosic outburst and also clearly delineated the gesture that unifies the whole, complex architecture of the quartet. The following scherzo had a Classical grace which countered the contrapuntal dynamism of the opening movement, while in the partnering minuet the Sacconi effectively counter-poised this balance as the drone-supported folky melody fragmented and the temporal regularity was disrupted by irregular harmonic changes.
But, it was the third movement, Molto adagio, which was most remarkable; here was breadth, capaciousness and air, though all the while the tone was focused, the line controlled. The Sacconi were not afraid to restrict their use of vibrato and the result was a mood of penetrating religiosity. Contrast was offered in the ornamented, capricious Andante, but the return of the slow material felt both inevitable and fresh, as the melody roved as a descant above the weaving lower lines. Perhaps it is unfair to suggest that in the closing stages of the movement the tempo was just a little too elongated, but it did feel to me that the parameters of the form were being stretched to the limit at the risk of losing forward movement. The ending was, however, wonderfully ethereal.
The Sacconi sustained this self-assurance during the feisty march and impassioned, agitated final movement, the ceaseless skipping and running of the Presto dancing to a triumphant conclusion.