The Revolutionary Drawing Room Present the Musical Embodiment of Genteel Taste and Execution

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Haydn, Albrechtsberger: The Revolutionary Drawing Room (Adrian Butterfield & Kathryn Parry [violins], Rachel Stott [viola] and Ruth Alford [cello]), St John’s Smith Square, London, 26.2.2017. (CS)

Beethoven – String Quartet in C minor Op.18 No.4; String Quartet in Bb Op.18 No.6
Haydn – String Quartet in D minor Op.103, Hob.3:83
Albrechtsberger (arr. Beethoven) – Fugue Op.1 No.6 in D minor

Amid the classical columns and cornices of Thomas Archer’s magnificent church of St John the Evangelist, ‘revolution’ is not an idea that springs naturally to mind.  That’s not to say that the church in Smith Square hasn’t seen its fair share of incident and drama, from fires to lightning strikes, from Suffragette bomb plots to direct hits on 10 May 1941, the last night of the Blitz.

But, it is to the Age of Revolution – the years of, often bloody, unrest in Europe between 1789-1848 – that the string quartet known as The Revolutionary Drawing Room transport their audiences with performances of late 18th- and 19th-century repertory.  For, political change was complemented by cultural experiment and transformation – as Shelley put it, poetry is ‘the most unfailing herald, companion, and follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change’ – and this was a period during which new music forms, styles, tastes, and even instruments, developed rapidly and divergently.

What’s in a name?  The ensemble’s somewhat oxymoronic title – the ‘drawing room’ was the large reception room to which Georgian hosts and their guests might ‘withdraw’ to private performances and entertainments – might lead one to expect the unexpected.  In fact, though the quartet are unusual in performing with gut strings, on the evidence of this concert there is nothing ‘radical’ or ‘unpredictable’ about the playing of Adrian Butterfield, Kathryn Parry, Rachel Stott  and Ruth Alford … other than the striking grace and clarity of their sound, and their meticulous – but not fussy – attention to detail.  This performance was the musical embodiment of genteel taste and execution.

The Revolutionary Drawing Room are currently one year into a three-year Beethoven complete-cycle at St John’s.  This was the third of three concerts this season in which they have paired Beethoven’s Op.18 quartets with Haydn’s final quartets.

It took me a little while to acclimatise to the gentle warmth of the ensemble sound, which at first seemed a little lost within the lofty grandeur of St John’s.  But, the lightness promoted the busy inner dialogues of the Allegro ma non tanto of Beethoven’s Op.18 No.4 and created a strong mood of restlessness.  The second subject arced joyfully in the upper three voices, while Alford maintained the driving momentum below.  Occasionally the balance favoured the cello, perhaps because the wooden platform on which Alford was seated – the others were standing – magnified the cello’s resonance.  And, there were a few queries about the intonation of some of the double-stopped chordal passages – indeed, the unstable gut strings necessitated frequent re-tuning – but overall this was a well-judged Allegro.  The tempo was convincing and the articulation and ornament understated.

A similar relaxation characterised the Andante scherzoso quasi Allegretto, Kathryn Parry initiating the imitative dance with grace, control and a sparing use of vibrato.  The pianissimo passages were magically delicate, the ensemble exemplary.  The Menuetto Allegro had a lovely lilt and the emphatic third-beat sforzandos were persuasively integrated within the ongoing forward movement.  The swaying duets of the Trio danced with energy, coloured by Butterfield’s buzzing triplets.  The final Allegro was fairly swift and the quartet did not make a meal of the ritenuto and pause in the main theme.  Butterfield took a more assertive role in this movement and overall I found that earnestness outweighed rustic vigour.

In this final Sonata-Rondo movement, Beethoven indulged in the Hungarian style of which Haydn was so fond.  And so it was fitting that ‘Papa’ Haydn’s own last string quartet ‘fragment’ followed.  The two movements that form the Op.103 were composed around the same time as the two Op.77 quartets, which were intended as a set of six; so perhaps they were planned as part of that group.  Melodic openness, clarity of texture and cleanness of articulation marked the Andantino grazioso; Butterfield’s well-projected theme was complemented by the viola’s neat decorations and supported by a focused, well-directed bass line.  The Revolutionary Drawing Room conveyed Haydn’s candour and sincerity in this movement, but also hinted at the gentle melancholy which resides in the chromatic shadows.  The Menuetto ma no troppo presto began explosively with a rhetorical gesture from the first fiddle, underpinned by a robust chord.  The D major trio provided a little respite from the forthright declamations and a good balance was struck between the confident dotted rhythm motifs and the more hesitant chromatic twists and interpolations.

Beethoven’s arrangement of Johann Georg Albrechtsberger’s Fugue Op.1 No.6 in D minor – the sixth in a set of twelve, and composed originally for ‘harpsichord or organ’ – was perhaps a surprising inclusion.   But, the Viennese Court Organist (1736-1809) played an important role in Beethoven’s life.  Haydn’s departure for England at the beginning of 1794 left Beethoven without a counterpoint teacher, and while that might have seemed a natural point for Beethoven to end his studies in Vienna and return to Bonn, Haydn arranged for Beethoven to continue his Viennese studies with Albrechtsberger, a leading disciple of the Fux tradition of learned counterpoint.  Based on the chorale melody, ‘Christus ist erstanden’ (Christ is risen), the fugue begin with sombre restraint.  But in the hands of The Revolutionary Drawing Room it became more animated and ultimately the flowering quavers acquired an impressive muscularity.  The players achieved the sonorous blend of a viol consort, shaping the lines with flexibility and nuance.

If the Op.18 No.4 had been rather sober and intense at times, the sixth quartet of the set bubbled with the sparkling gleefulness of the brightest opera buffa.  The Allegro con brio was a bustling, conversational exchange and if the second subject injected a tone of serious, it was all but brief, swept aside by the resuming chatter.  The contrasts between these two groups of material were sharply defined in the development section and, along with the impetus created by the tripping rising scales culminating on precisely pointed repeated crotchets, this helped to give the long section a secure structure.  Butterfield’s finger-work was fleet and there was a nice sheen to his expressive gestures.

Both Butterfield and Parry played the flowing theme of the Adagio, ma no troppo with the expansive serenity of an operatic air.  The tempo was, sensibly, flowing; and the inner marcato motifs made their mark but without undue aggression.  The harmonic and melodic complexities were assimilated within an organic unfolding, but there was one striking moment of pause, when the three lower strings articulated a quiet octave-unison linking motif which had a glassy, eerie transparency.

Beethoven’s Scherzo – the rhythmic equivalent of a tongue twister – flew along with insouciant ease, aided by the rock-steady regularity of Alford’s understated anacrusis motif, and the evenness and flexibility of the upper voices’ slippery syncopations.  The trio slithered deliciously by, and if the reintroduction of the Scherzo’s rhythmic idea in the transition was surprisingly brusque, any clouds were quickly swept away.  The gut strings created a sense ‘distance’ in the slow introduction to the final movement.  Quietly elegiac, rather than bitterly melancholic, perhaps.  The ornamental turns seemed essentially melodic rather than just expressive decorations, and the ensemble playing was superlative.  Dynamic contrasts were striking but not over-emphasised, and the ‘revolutionary’ shifts of harmony and texture seemed entirely natural, though no less absorbing.  Here, delicacy paradoxically was drama.  The Allegretto quasi Allegro itself set off at a steady-ish pace but this enabled the players to turn the tricky structural corners with assurance.  And, if this finale might have danced to a slightly quicker beat, there was plenty of opportunity to enjoy Butterfield’s effortless facility and clean tone.  It was a charming conclusion to a delightful recital.  I look forward to the continuation of The Revolutionary Drawing Room’s Beethoven cycle next year.

Claire Seymour

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