Schubert and Sacconi: a perfect start to a new LCMS season

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Dove, Schubert: Sacconi Quartet (Ben Hancox & Hannah Dawson [violins], Robin Ashwell [viola], Cara Berridge [cello]), Kings Place, London, 8.10.2017. (CS)

Sacconi Quartet; photo credit - Clive Barda.
Sacconi Quartet (c) Clive Barda

Mozart – String Quartet in G, K387
Jonathan Dove – String Quartet, Out of Time (2001)
Schubert – String Quartet No.14 in D minor D810, Death and the Maiden

It’s been a while since I have heard the Sacconi Quartet perform live; but, that’s certainly not through choice, simply a reflection of the rich offerings of London musical life.  So, it was by happy chance that a free Sunday evening coincided with the re-commencement of the London Chamber Music Society’s Sunday concerts at Kings Place and a performance by the Sacconi in which familiar Mozart and Schubert framed a work by Jonathan Dove.

Watching the Sacconi’s body language and eye contact, it’s evident that all the players are firmly and comfortably settled into their collective shoes.  They look at each other, rather than being fixed to their parts; they listen and exchange.  They ally the ‘still centre’ which comes with maturity with refreshingly imaginative interpretations.  Though no individual is overly demonstrative, the players seem to have distinct ‘roles’: cellist Cara Berridge provides calm, grave underpinning, blossoming warmly as the music requires; Robin Ashwell lithely shapes his viola tone and colour, ever alert to the unfolding drama; Hannah Dawson provides an intense, earnest middle voice, often rapt, also tender; Ben Hancox is seemingly one of the most laid-back quartet leaders around, but a cool manner belies a steely focus and unwavering control.  It all looks and sounds effortless; obviously, it isn’t.  But, the four players are like distinct pieces in a jigsaw puzzle that have come together to produce a ‘perfect picture’.

In the Sacconi’s hands, Mozart’s first ‘mature’ quartet, the G major K387, sounded less strictly ‘classical’ and more ‘modern’ than I anticipated – and that was no bad thing.  There was a prevailing lightness which was bracing.  The Allegro vivace assai journeyed swiftly through the contrasting themes, the exposition repeat imbued with extra drama by the enhanced dynamic contrasts.  Often rhythm seemed to be emphasised more the ‘melody’ per se, which, alongside Berridge’s light-fingered running figures, created persuasive forward motion.   The flow of the Menuetto was not troubled by the piano-forte contrasts, crotchet by crotchet, which can make the theme feel laboured, and the use of only minimal vibrato enhanced the sense of fleetness.  In contrast, the tone of the Trio was brusque, with a raw growl on the unison trills (perfectly tuned and timed).  I thought that the Andante cantabile had a poeticism reminiscent of Beethoven’s extended quartet slow movements, particularly as the dissonances seemed drawn to the fore.  The final Molto allegro began as an almost imperceptible whisper and even as the bucolic rhythms took hold, their remained an exciting air of unpredictability.

I had not previously heard Jonathan Dove’s Out of Time, which was commissioned for the Vanburgh String Quartet by the Summer Music Society and Elizabeth Allsebrook, in memory of Peter Allsebrook.  Dove describes the quartet as ‘not a musical portrait, but [it was] suggested by his irresistible, infectious energy, and by his departure’.   This energy drove the opening movement – a moto perpetuo in which the Sacconi balanced fleet-footed impetus with rhythmic structure and syncopation.  Though Dove’s harmonies and repetitions recall the techniques of minimalism, the Sacconi revealed an underlying contrapuntal energy within the even tone colour and articulation, from which a beautiful first violin theme emerged, to engage in dialogue with the pianissimo cello.  This was ‘restless’ music, but not at all ‘agitated’.  Cello pizzicatos provided a propelling force in the ensuing slow movement in which the phrases seemed to overlap soporifically; the poetic interplay of the inner voices was a beautiful counterpoint to Hancox’s floating, dream-like excursions.  A ‘lively’ fourth movement had an appealing pentatonic resonance, while the following ‘fast’ fifth movement conveyed an exhilarating sense of freedom, though one which was always self-composed.  The final movement, ‘Gently movement’ was simultaneously tender and rich as the homophonous textures were enlivened by complex off-beat rhythmic interplay.

I lost count many years ago of the number of times I have heard Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet performed, in live performance and on recording, by manifold ensembles; and, how many times I’ve played the quartet myself – probably with declining facility over the years! – most recently, and for the first time, in the Mahler arrangement for string orchestra, with the Oare String Orchestra last September.  It’s a work that never fails to clutch one’s heart and stir one’s emotions.  But, it’s been a while since I found myself sitting on the edge of my seat, peering so intently at the performers, to ascertain just how they were creating such a strikingly fresh and expressive interpretation.

The Sacconi seemed to conjure two musical sound-worlds which stood in theatrical contra-distinction: a rich Romantic sound-world, by turns intense and consolatory; and a more introspective, ‘modern’, lucid tapestry which conveyed, paradoxically, both restlessness and peace.

The opening bars of the Allegro always set out the stall: the Sacconi played the opening dotted minim with attack and vibrancy, and did not let the sound wane/swell into the fourth-beat triplets – no re-take/breath here.  Thus, sustained richness was contrasted with the pianissimo gestation of the theme which follows, during which melodic and rhythmic priorities were kept in superb balance.  Hancox negotiated the first violin’s semi-quaver scampering with supreme lightness, but there were also places where the effectiveness and resoluteness of his quiet leadership was powerfully evident: as in the first movement development section where his E-string acquired a steely strength which garnered the collective’s attention.

It was the second movement, though, which I found most enlightening and persuasive.  The con moto of Schubert’s instruction was acknowledged and executed, with a fluency that the composer surely intended.  Though the exposition repeat of the Allegro had been omitted, here every repeat was observed; but, the movement – which can, in less able hands, sink into lethargy – maintained compelling forward momentum.  The theme itself was unmannered but poetic.  The first violin’s subsequent high interpolations were feathery but registered with eloquence; the sense of exploring through dialogue was unwavering.  Rhythmic vitality swept through the folky stamping of the sfzordando-coloured variation, but the Sacconi never relied on the notes on the page to do all the work; the up-bow sweeps of the first fiddle’s double-stops in the subsequent variation had tremendous vitality but, looking forward to the chance to experience the rush of energy again, I was wrong-footed in the repeat when Hancox now chose to accent the lead-in crotchet with a down-bow – an effect which was just as invigorating.

The Scherzo was again made dynamic by contrast, the folky bite of the rhythmically displaced theme contrasted with Mendelssohnian lyricism, then airiness, in the Trio.  As for the ways in which one can bow and articulate the theme of the Presto, and the potential resulting effects, all one can really say is ‘let me count the ways’ … but the Sacconi still had me peering and pondering – and essaying some air-mimicry!  One can ‘tuck in’, bow ‘back to front’, ‘separate’ … but the Sacconi seemed at first to combine the first two approaches with the result that there was both a taut tension and a breathy quality; but, just when I thought I’d cracked the mystery, they changed tack, ever seeking freshness and renewal.

This was a terrifically exciting performance that left me wanting more – not least another chance to fathom the bowing of the last movement!  Schubert and Sacconi: what better way could there be to initiate the new season of the London Chamber Music Society’s Sunday evening concerts at Kings Place.

Claire Seymour

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