United Kingdom Proms Chamber Music 7 – Schubert, Beamish, Mozart: Lise Berthaud (viola), David Saudubray (piano), Armida Quartet (Martin Funda & Johanna Staemmler [violins], Teresa Schwamm [viola], Peter-Philipp Staemmler [cello], Cadogan Hall, London, 29.8.2016. (CS)
Schubert – Quartettsatz in C minor D.703
Sally Beamish – Merula perpetua (BBC co-commission with the Royal Philharmonic Society: world premiere)
Mozart – String Quintet in C major K.515
This season’s penultimate Proms Chamber Music concert celebrated BBC Radio 3’s New Generation Artists scheme. French violist Lise Berthaud was a member of the scheme from 2013-15, while the Armida Quartet’s two years as BBC NGAs are coming to a close; together and individually they presented three works, varied in style and form yet nevertheless linked by some thought-provoking threads.
This was the first time that I have heard the Armida Quartet perform and I was immediately struck by the paradoxical and intriguing combination of expressive delicacy and steely precision which characterised the opening of Schubert’s Quartettsatz in C minor, and which they sustained throughout the recital.
The opening tremolos of this disquieting single-movement work – all that remains of a quartet which Schubert had begun in 1820 and abandoned after composing just 40 bars of the subsequent Andante – can sometimes convey restless agitation, even impending panic! But the bristling shimmer that the Armida conjured – no less tense but excited rather than distressed or overwrought – flowed as fluently as I have heard into a first subject which emerged naturally and lyrically. The ensemble was tightly knit, but there was still room for individuals to come to the fore: in particular, Peter-Philipp Staemmler’s cello articulated a graceful bass line, the pizzicatos well-rounded and resonant. The recapitulation came upon us almost unobtrusively, the tremolos gently stirring but not excessively theatrical. There was real attention to detail: Staemmler lifted his bow quite high from the strings to produce a staccato which was buoyant but airy. Then, just to show us that they perceived the music’s darkness, the Armida injected a sudden burst of urgency in the coda. Schubert’s Quarttetsatz can be troubling and knotty but the sensitivity and lightness of touch that the Armida applied made the clarity of the formal structure apparent, and showed us both the creative ease and the expressive turbulence present in the work.
There are several stories behind Sally Beamish’s new work for viola and piano, Merula perpetua. ‘Merula’ is the Latin word for blackbird while ‘perpetua’ suggests something relentless, infinite and discomforting. And, noting that this is a work about insomnia, Beamish joined BBC presenter Petroc Trelawny on the Cadogan Hall stage to explain that the origins of the work lay in the ‘plaintive, grief-stricken, obsessive’ song of a blackbird – perhaps unsettled by the light-pollution in Glasgow, to which Beamish had recently located from the Stirlingshire countryside – which disturbed her sleep. The choice of viola as the instrument through which to express the bird’s anxiety and subsequent joy was linked to a gift presented by Beamish’s daughter, Stephanie, a stringed instrument maker. Once a professional violist, Beamish found herself unable to play after the theft of her instrument in 1989; but a gift of a new viola from her daughter ‘reconnected’ her with the instrument and this in turn transformed the blackbird’s song. Merula perpetua, in the composer’s words, ‘expresses that journey through the blackbird’s song’.
The stark opening – tremolo harmonics on the viola accompanied by icy piano repetitions and jerky melodic curlicues at the top of the register – was not a million miles from the tense ambience of the start of the Quartettsatz, and as the agitated viola and piano gestures became more enmeshed around each other the bird’s distress escalated. This trilling restlessness alternated with moments of stillness, not calm exactly, but episodes where the relentless quavering came to rest and the texture thinned and the piano intoned gentle chords, or the viola indulged in freer melodic experimentation which at times grew into a more extended song. Perhaps such episodes suggest that the bird is relaxing into introspective creativity.
Playing with understated virtuosity, Berthaud’s tone was focused and strong, and she showed a wide expressive range, at times incisive and vibrant, elsewhere resonant and rich, then retreating to smooth gentleness. Amid the sombreness and agitation there was pulsating energy and even incipient chirpiness. The strong flexibility and expertly controlled silkiness of Berthaud’s bowing helped to fuse the disparate textures of Beamish’s score, which abounds in textural and motivic ideas. The violist seemed at ease with this challenging work, and pianist David Saudubray was an astute accompanist, finding many hues from the keyboard and etching the piano’s melodic contributions with crisp directness. Yet, even though the violist demonstrated a wide expressive palette, the contrasts and tensions of this complex, fertile score did not quite fuse. At the close, though, the comforting gentleness of Berthaud’s final, humble utterances – which simply broke off, dissolving into air – evoked the bird’s carefree serenity, which we were, after a troubled journey, privileged to recognise and share.
Berthaud and the Armida Quartet came together for the final work of the programme, Mozart’s C major String Quintet. This was an agile performance which brought out the conversational suppleness of Mozart’s elaborately wrought part-writing as well as communicating – aided not least by acute understanding of how to shape the asymmetrical phrases and delayed cadences – the work’s astonishing expansiveness, proportions and continuity.
Staemmler once again made a strong impression as the understated foundation of the ensemble’s meticulous precision and expressive unity; the lyricism of his dialogue with leader Martin Funda in the opening Allegro established the mood of dignified grace which was sustained throughout. And in the initial mounting phrase another bird seemed to be recalled: that of Haydn’s Op.33 No.3 string quartet, ‘The Bird’.
The inner voices entwined effortlessly, melodies flowing seamlessly and eloquently. In the Andante, first violist Teresa Schwamm enjoyed the opportunity to duet with Funda; from leisurely beginnings their melodies unfolded like an operatic duet, developing in richness and profundity, and culminating in a finely articulated cadenza-like episode for the pair. The Finale was relaxed and spacious as the varied themes unfolded freely.
This was a performance which communicated the Quintet’s wonderful combination of majesty and sweetness.