Stimulating Performances from Two Highly Contrasting Quartets

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn, Mendelssohn, Palestrina and Pärt: Solem Quartet (Amy Tress & Catherine Landen [violins], Alistair Vennart [viola], Stephanie Tress [cello]) and BLOCK4 (Emily Bannister, Katie Cowling, Lucy Carr, Rosie Land [recorders]), Wigmore Hall, London, 22.6.2015 (CS)

Haydn: String Quartet in D Op.20 No.4
Anonymous: Istampitta, Saltarello 1
Arvo Pärt: Pari Intervallo
Antonio de Cabezón: Tiento del Quinto Tono
Michiel Mensingh: Wicked
Palestrina: Lamentation of Jeremiah – Lamed. Matribus suis dixerunt (from Feria VI, Liber secundus)
Wojtek Blacharz: Airlines
Mendelssohn: String Quartet in F Minor Op.80


This Royal Over-Seas League Prize Winners concert at the Wigmore Hall presented both traditional and experimental fare, juxtaposing the familiar sound of musical conversations between four stringed-instruments with the tonal blends and contrasts of a quartet of recorders to which we are less accustomed.

BLOCK4 are a London-based recorder quartet comprising Emily Bannister, Lucy Carr, Katie Cowling and Rosie Land.  If any in the audience had preconceptions about the recorder, associating the instrument with domestic music-making of a gentle, intimate nature, then they were quickly disabused by the group’s dynamic approach and intriguing mixture of early and contemporary music.  We were beguiled by the sheer diversity of timbre and texture, as the players switched between a variety of instruments – often mid-composition – and by the intriguing correspondences and connections between the music of the past and of the modern day which their inventive programming illuminated.

They began with the anonymous composition Istampitta, Saltarello 1 which is taken from a collection of medieval music, The London Manuscript.  The work opened with a duet; then another player joined the platform and entered the dialogue, and gradually the vigorous, hopping dance emerged through the improvisatory texture, bursting energetically in a flurry of repeated notes underpinned by hearty foot-stamping!  The wry, abrupt ending was an indication of the wit and irony with which BLOCK4 complemented their unwavering commitment to the music performed.

We moved from Italy to Spain for Antonio de Cabezón’s Tiento del Quinto Tono, in which different melodic strands intertwined elaborately, in ever-decreasing note values, before coming to rest in a slow chordal ending.  Blind from childhood, Antonio de Cabezón (1510 -66) did not let his disability hinder the flourishing of his musical talent, and rose to prominence as a composer and organist, finding employment in the service of the Spanish royal family.  A tiento was a short contrapuntal work that aimed to bring out the interpretative qualities of different instruments. Tiento del Quinto Tono was originally composed for the organ and BLOCK4 balanced an evenly blended texture with pointed imitative entries.  Homogeneity and excellent intonation were also evident in Palestrina’s Lamed. Matribus suis dixerunt, but here, instead of a fantasy of free polyphony we had devotional serenity: a calm unfolding of poised melodic voices which explored a rich harmonic palette.

The Palestrina featured both familiar instruments from the recorder family, and ‘Paetzold’ recorders.  The latter, named after their designer Herbert Paetzold, are square recorders made from patented ply wood which have a range of more than two octaves, similar to that for standard baroque recorders.  They come in various registers, bass, great bass, contrabass, subgreatbass and the enormous subcontrabass, which dwarfed the players!

The sweet tone and strong, even sound of the Paetzold recorder was put to good use in Arvo Pärt’s Pari Intervallo, to create a persuasive ebb and flow: if the rests between each repeated note in the upper voices created a slight tension, the sustained chords beneath provided unity, and as the music meandered towards the major tonality there was a lovely opening and warming of the sound.

At the recent Open Recorder Day Amsterdam (ORDA), held at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam in May this year, BLOCK4 received a Donemus award for their performance of Wicked by Dutch composer Michiel Mensingh, and this ‘drum-and-bass-inspired’ work certainly show-cased the players’ technical assurance and the astonishing vitality of their manner of performance: they switched between diverse instruments, even removing parts and holding instruments horizontally, as the music explored different sonorities, ever more agitated and penetrating.  Polish composer Wojtek Blecharz’s Airlines, with its combination of breathy spoken words, fluty arabesques, motivic oscillations, rhythmic pulsing and physical gestures (such as the banging of the bottom of the instrument with the player’s hand), made for an exotic end to BLOCK4’s varied, convincing programme.

Formed in 2011 when they were students at the University of Manchester, the Solem Quartet have had a fast rise to public recognition, first continuing their studies at the Royal Northern College of Music, and now recently awarded the a Junior Fellowship in Chamber Music at the RNCM, to commence in September 2015.

The composed manner in which they settled immediately into Haydn’s D Major Quartet, Op.20 No.4 confirmed their promise.  The Allegro di molto was notable for the dynamic interplay of voices, underpinned by Stephanie Tress’s firm, confident cello.  They achieved an excellent balance between tension and relaxation – the slightly veiled quality of the development section contrasting with the dark richness of the exposition – which created momentum and articulated the movement’s structure.  Each of the variations of the Un poco adagio e affetuoso theme was distinct in character: Amy Tress’s semiquaver triplets danced lightly in the third, after the sweet tunefulness of the cello’s wide-ranging melody in the preceding variation, while the sotto voce fourth variation, with its chromatic nuances in the inner voices, was played with particular sensitivity.

The robust displaced accents of the Menuetto: allegretto alla Zingarese were vibrant and dynamic, disconcerting the listener searching for the downbeat; the gently tripping cello quavers in the Trio offered a graceful counterpoise.  The fleet semiquavers of the Finale: presto (scherzando) formed well-controlled, cleanly articulated dialogues between the voices, and the Solem Quartet romped through the harmonic surprises and intricate textures with élan.

The concert concluded with Mendelssohn’s F Minor Quartet Op.80, the composer’s final work, written after the death of his beloved sister Fanny, and of which Mendelssohn’s life-long friend Julius Benedict remarked:  ‘It would be difficult to cite any piece of music which so completely impresses the listener with a sensation of gloomy foreboding, of anguish of mind, and of the most poetic melancholy, as does this masterly and eloquent composition.’

The Solem Quartet captured the work’s fury and fire but did not allow the quartet’s impassioned expression to overpower its formal coherence.  The tremolos which open the Allegro vivace assai were dark and stormy, but the players eased naturally from such anguish into the more lyrical statements.  The scherzo was relentless, even brutal, the syncopations and stabbing sforzandos driving forward with intensity.  In the trio it seemed that the music had burned itself out, for the sparse, low duet for viola and cello was desolate and subdued, before the violins’ eerie melody led back to a revival of the lurching tension of the scherzo.  The players paused, judiciously, before the Adagio.  Their performance of this wonderful movement was deeply moving.  There was a quiet sadness about the cello’s initial sinking quavers which found more intense expression in the eloquent minor sixth descent of the main melody.

The dark urgency of the Finale: Allegro molto was almost frightening, the cello’s rapidly oscillating fifths forming a menacing rumble which burst intermittently throughout the movement, only occasionally subsuming all other musical content but never entirely at rest.  The Solem Quartet found it challenging to maintain momentum, but the closing passage built to an electrifying climax, as the accumulating syncopations and triplets threatened to explode in anger: the soaring lament of the first violin, striving to escape the maelstrom, was eventually quelled by the frantic figurations of the raging voices below.

Claire Seymour


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