Relaxed Intensity in a Wide-Ranging Concert by the Carducci Quartet

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn, Shostakovich, Webern, Beethoven: Carducci String Quartet (Matthew Denton & Michelle Fleming [violins], Eoin Schmidt-Martin [viola], Emma Denton [cello]), Wigmore Hall, London, 1.3.2017. (CS)

Haydn – String Quartet in D major Op.20 No.4
Shostakovich – String Quartet No.11 in F minor Op.122
WebernLangsamer Satz
Beethoven – String Quartet in F minor Op.95 ‘Serioso’

One thing that can be guaranteed about a performance by the Carducci String Quartet is that the four players will not just take immense pleasure from the performance, but will be seen to derive joy from their music-making.

First violinist Matthew Denton wears his passion and commitment on his sleeve, so to speak; his energised engagement with the score is exhibited through dynamic physicality and intense facial expressions, which might be found distracting by some but which are an essential part of Denton’s musical expression.  Indeed, all four players exude a potent fusion of vitality and concentration.  There is a relaxed confidence about their manner, too, which comes from both technical assurance and thorough preparation.

Perhaps it is such confidence that allows the Carducci to let the music ‘breathe’ – as if it’s a living entity that shifts, eludes, surprises and which should be explored, tussled with, lived through and understood, rather than polished and constrained into a crafted but inert fixity.

For, there were a few rough edges to their performance of Haydn’s Op.20 No.4 but they served to reveal the composer’s humour and spiritedness.  The ensemble took Haydn at his word when interpreting the tempo instruction of the tuneful first movement, Allegro di molto.  It was a little while before they fully settled but by the repeat of the exposition they had blended their voices into a mellifluous whole infused with the warmth of the frequent pairings in thirds and sixths.  Despite the tempo, Denton’s arpeggio triplets sparkled with precision.  The development had a strong sense of direction as the Carducci explored the inventive motivic exchanges and harmonic twists and turns.

The minor-tonality second movement did not linger overly; affettusoso was rightly interpreted as ‘play with feeling’ rather than melancholic, and there was a brightening at the major-key cadences and through the passing modulations – though the players did acknowledge and convey the growing intensity of the movement.  The democracy inherent in the variation form suited the Carducci’s inherent egalitarianism and consensus – though leader Denton is the most extrovert of the players, they are all strong communicators and have an empathy that would be startling if one was not aware that the quartet comprises two married couples.  Michelle Fleming and Eoin Schmidt-Martin gave shape to the rather fraught inner dialogue; Emma Denton’s cello sang with purpose across the instrument’s whole compass.  The displaced accents of the Allegretto all zingarese conjured a riotous, folky air; and if rhythmic vigour sometimes took priority over cleanness of tone in the Presto scherzando, then the former was infectious and the final decrescendo winningly graceful.

In 2015, the Carducci Quartet devoted themselves to presenting Shostakovich’s complete string quartets to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the composer’s death, including a day-long traversal of all 15 quartets on the exact anniversary of his passing (review).  The project was accompanied by a (recording) of Quartets Nos. 4, 8 and 11.  The Eleventh Quartet is dedicated to the memory of Vasili Pyotrovich Shirinsky, a close friend of Shostakovich and co-founder of the Beethoven Quartet, who had died aged 65 on 16 August 1965.  The work consists of seven linked movements – ‘miniatures’, each of which embodies a specific sentiment.

Matthew Denton’s solo ached with loneliness at the start of the Introduction, before Emma Denton introduced the beautiful theme which binds the disparate elements of the work.  The Scherzo ran fast but with frustration: the repeating note of the motor-motif denies itself forward movement, and it was mocked by snapping pizzicati, zipping glissandi and fierce short bow strokes.  In the Recitative, first violin and viola did not draw back from the gruff harshness of the material, while the whirling Etude seemed to offer a riposte to such introspective bitterness.  Fleming’s relentless ostinato was a strong anchor for the scathing fragmentations of the Humoresque and her presentation of the release of grief in the Elegy was impressively powerful and dark.  The brevity of the individual movements seems to inhibit development of feeling, but here Fleming played a crucial role in defining the evolutionary progression of the closing sections, sustaining the intensity into the Finale, which recalls earlier themes.

MusicWeb International’s reviewer of the Carducci’s Signum recording, wishing for a little more risk-taking in the Eleventh Quartet, remarked, ‘I’d bet the Carducci Quartet is prepared to see blood on the carpet when it comes to certain live performances’.  On this occasion, there was certainly a rawness, and at times a painful or caustic edge to the emotional register, but the grief and loneliness invested in and communicated by the music was all the more moving because of the care taken to delineate the sparse musical arguments with precision and clarity.

I was not familiar with Webern’s Langsamer Satz of 1905 and was initially taken aback by the late-Romantic fervour – Brahmsian rhythmic pulsation allied with Mahlerian Sehnsucht which develops into a quasi-Straussian febrility.  If this sounds excessive and banal, then the Carducci showed Webern’s love song – the work was said to have been inspired by a hiking holiday in the mountains in the environs of Vienna which Webern took with his soon-to-be fiancée and later wife, Wilhelmine Mörtl – to be a work of both passion and tenderness.

Beethoven’s Op.95 might have seemed an unlikely work to succeed the Webern.  But, despite its ‘serioso’ subtitle – perhaps prompted by a failed love affair, precarious health, worsening deafness, financial insecurity and Napoleon’s 1809 invasion of Vienna – the quartet reflects Beethoven’s spiritual stamina and strength.  He may have written to a friend in 1810, ‘If I had not read somewhere that no one should quit life voluntarily while he could still do something worthwhile, I would have been dead long ago and certainly by my own hand. Oh, life is so beautiful, but for me it is poisoned forever’, but the Carducci recognise that the quartet contains both the crisp dryness of self-defensive retreat and the silkiness and wildness of inner feelings released.  In the Allegro con brio I was particularly impressed by Schmidt-Martin’s strong presence: he cut through the texture with dramatic motivic repetitions.  The Allegretto ma non troppo had a strong vocal quality and all players employed a wide vibrato which made the material compelling.  The Scherzo followed attacca and here the Carducci really captured the contrasts presented: quiet intensity, fiery extroversion and, tempering both, the hymn-like stability of the central section.

Towards the close of the recital, I did feel that the Carducci’s technical assurance lapsed occasionally – the intonation in the last two movements of the Op.95 was not always secure.  But the diversity and surging strength of the emotional climaxes was winning, and the concluding bars were exhilarating – Denton literally leapt from his seat, as Beethoven triumphed over adversity.

At the end of the recital my overriding feeling was admiration for the way that the Carducci responded to and articulated each of the very different musical moods and landscapes through which the programme ranged.  Their playing embodied an oxymoronic abstraction – relaxed intensity – but there was nothing abstract about the meaning and feelings that they communicated.

Claire Seymour

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