United Kingdom Beethoven: Navarra Quartet (Magnus Johnston & Marije Johnston [violins], Simone van der Giessen [viola], Brian O’Kane [cello]), King’s Place, London, 13.9.2015 (CS)
Dvořák: Two Cypresses for string quartet, B.152 No.3 and No.12
Beethoven: String Quartet in C sharp minor Op.131
Founded in 2002 and comprising players from the British Isles and the Netherlands, the Navarra Quartet were selected for representation by the Young Classical Artists Trust (YCAT) from 2006 to 2010, and were recipients of a MIDEM Classique Young Artist Award, a Borletti- Buitoni Trust Fellowship, a Musica Viva tour and prizes at the Banff, Melbourne and Florence International String Quartet Competitions. They have won international recognition and admiration for their dynamic performances and original interpretations. On this occasion – a short afternoon recital at King’s Place, and the first of the London Chamber Music Society’s 2015-16 concerts – while there was no doubt about the Navarra’s interpretative commitment or bravery, I remained unconvinced by what I found an overly fussy and idiosyncratic approach to one of the quartet repertoire’s most demanding and inherently restless and wrought ‘monuments’
The Navarra’s recital began, however, with two of Dvóřak’s Cypresses for quartet, miniatures which the composer derived from songs that he had written during the 1860s. This seemed a rather odd choice of item with which to commence the programme, given that neither the string arrangements nor the original songs probably represent Dvořák at his best and, in general, lack variety of mood and tempo, and memorable melody. They are also very brief. Thus, while the Navarra did present two ‘songs’ of contrasting mood – the third and twelfth of the B.152 set, gentle and stormy respectively – they were over almost before they had begun and surely did not allow either the players to ‘settle’, in preparation for the challenges ahead, or listeners to attune their ears.
One can’t help feeling that the best way in which to experience these somewhat fragmentary utterances is as a complete set, when the individual expressive details can form a larger, comprehensive and coherent whole. That said, several features of the Navarra’s playing were immediately apparent – and these elements would continue to play an important part in the ensemble’s expressive approach throughout the concert; that is, delicacy of articulation as every detail was finely etched and clarified, and the fine, firm tone of cellist Brian O’Kane which provided strong, appealing support enabling the sometimes reticent upper lines to cohere. But, understandably perhaps, given that their minds may well have been on the challenges ahead, the vivacious rhythms of the twelfth cypress were a little ‘muddy’; and while first violinist Magnus Johnston demonstrated a clean, clear tone he did not establish a dominant presence which might have lifted the melody more persuasively above the texture.
These brief preludes were immediately swept aside and largely forgotten in the face of Beethoven’s mighty C sharp minor Quartet, Op.131 which followed. With its seven movements which unfold in an unbroken continuity, and the harmonic tension and eeriness of timbre which arise from the key signature – not a ‘natural’ key for string players – the Op.131 is notoriously difficult, in both a technical and interpretative sense. The Navarra were certainly not afraid to grapple with Beethoven’s provocative ideas – which are troubling, multifarious and ambiguous – but I felt that the result was more a melange of individual, often idiosyncratic concepts, rather than a lucid whole.
The opening Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo was fittingly tense and stark. The bow control of the three upper strings was impressive, each line stretched interminably and sustained without loss of tone. But there was not unanimity in the manner in which the sforzando/dimuendo in the opening phrase was articulated: after the first violin’s reserved understatement, Marije Johnston was more assertive with the bow, while viola player Simone van der Giessen preferred an extrovert, wide vibrato to bring forth the gesture. After this introspective, mordant opening, a portamento from the cello seemed somewhat out of place. And as the movement unfolded the players, while creating strong individual characters, did not achieve a unified ensemble voice
The transition – or perhaps that should be ‘non-transition’ – to the second movement Allegro molto vivace was impressive though: a sudden brightening and lightening, and a new melodic direction and fluency after the appropriately intense and restrained first movement. The pianissimo passages were incredibly quiet and elusive, forcing the listener to do some work; and extreme dynamic contrasts were a striking and persuasive feature of both this movement and the following Allegro moderato – Adagio. Once again, though, I felt that Magnus Johnston could have been more assertive in his melodic declarations. And in the fourth movement – a multipartite theme and variations – he relied on a broad vibrato rather than intensity of bow strength and weight to project. He sometimes lacked support from beneath though: rather than singing together, like voices in an opera ensemble, the players emphasised the independence and particularity of their individual lines. So, in the Piú mosso section of this movement, as Johnston soared high (with rock-sure intonation), the pianissimo staccato quavers of 2nd violin and viola were exaggeratedly brief, snatched almost, at times only barely registering – a texture rather than a counter-voice, though once again O’Kane’s cello line did provide warmth and forward movement. The problem was that, with all this emphasis on difference, fragment and gesture, the overall sense of ‘joy’ within the movement was diminished. There was an anxiety and underlying tension which, coupled with the pinched articulation of some of the motifs – phrases were never allowed to settle at the close but were abruptly broken off – it was, at the risk of hyperbole, more Janáček than Beethoven.
The following Presto effected another dramatic jolt: now we were in a mad dance, the sul ponticello passage at the end of the movement seeming to prepare for the ‘expressionist’ approach which the Navarra adopted in the Adagio quasi un poco andante: I felt that the beauty and ardency of this movement were not fully communicated. The sound was cold and stern, (‘quasi-Shostakovich’?), juxtapositions of dynamic were again extreme, and the unfolding melody was not given sufficient space or breadth. There was – from the demonic declarations of the start of the movement – a blossoming of tonal strength and ensemble unanimity in the final Allegro though; it was quite a relief! There was heroism and warmth in the final episode and the many, subtle rubatos and small variations of tempo were skilfully handled.
The Navarra’s reading of this complex work, which pushes against – and breaks – all conventions and boundaries, was intense and certainly courageous. But, for this listener at least, it seemed to say more about the Navarra than about Beethoven.