Well-Designed Programme, Insightfully Played by Albion Quartet

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn, Fribbins, Suk, Dvořák: Albion Quartet [Tamsin Waley-Cohen, Emma Parker (violins), Rosalind Ventris (viola), Nathaniel Boyd (cello)]. Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff. 9.3.2018. (GPu)

Albion Quartet (c) Steve Gullick
Albion Quartet (c) Steve Gullick

Haydn – String Quartet in C major Op.76 No.3, ‘Emperor’
Fribbins – String Quartet No.2, ‘After Cromer’
Suk Meditation on an Old Czech Chorale, ‘St. Wenceslas’, Op.35a
Dvořák – String Quartet No.12 in F major Op.96

Founded only in 2016, The Albion Quartet has rapidly (and deservedly) won a reputation as one of the very best young String Quartets around. The most famous of its members is undoubtedly Tamsin Waley-Cohen, but the Albion Quartet is by no means a ‘vehicle’ for her. She is an equal voice (as far as the first violin of a String Quartet is ever quite an ‘equal’, rather than the first amongst equals) with the other three members of the quartet. They too are outstanding musicians. Second violin Emma Parker is, for example, well-known both as a soloist and for her work with, inter alia, the London Mozart Players, Manchester Camerata and Ensemble 360. Violist Rosalind Ventris is a prolific prize-winner – she won no less than five awards at 2013 Tertis Competition, for example – and has been a member of Trio Anima as well as giving recitals as a soloist at prestigious venues across Europe. Cellist Nathaniel Boyd is also much in demand as a soloist – and he, too, is a multiple prize-winner – who has worked with the Navarra String Quartet along with larger ensembles such as Manchester Camerata and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. In any case, one only needs the evidence of one’s own ears to recognise what fine musicians they are, and how well the four work together.

The Albion Quartet displays the expected virtues of perfect (but natural-sounding) ensemble, a sense of intent communication between its four members and with the audience; they play with great vibrancy and a complementary sense of discipline and balance. They are evidently an ensemble eager to play works from right across the substantial repertoire for String Quartet, and also to design programmes which are far more than just a ‘random’ sequence of master works.

This particular programme began (where else should a concert of String Quartets begin?) with the founding father of the genre, Haydn – and with one of the ‘foundational’ texts of the genre, the ‘Emperor’ Quartet. The lively assurance with which it was played was immediately impressive. The sense of ensemble felt ‘tight’, but natural, and with an air of comfort, rather than pedantically so. In the initial Allegro the metamorphoses of the initial theme were handled with deceptive ease, not least when it became a rustic dance in E major – a quite delicious episode. In the second movement, which gives the work its name, the famous tune, composed by Haydn in 1797 in honour of the Emperor was a model of unstuffy dignity. The ensuing Minuet and Trio were played with winning sensitivity and the closing Presto had a startling, but apt, sense of momentum. In this first work, as elsewhere in the programme, I was very favourably impressed by the work of violist Rosalind Ventris, whose rich dark tone made a major contribution to the beauty of the Quartet’s sound.

Being only ‘a bear of little brain’, it was only in the course of this great Haydn quartet that the nature of the connecting thread uniting the evening’s programme became clear to me. Haydn’s ‘Hymn’ for the Emperor had a generative role in Op.76 No.3, as the basis for the variations making up the second movement. In a related way, Peter Fribbins’ second quartet After Cromer makes use of the hymn tune ‘Cromer’- composed by the Welshman John Ambrose Lloyd (1815-1874) as the theme for its first movement. I haven’t had access to a score of After Cromer, but my ears tell me that in fact all four movements of the work are indebted to Lloyd’s hymn tune to some extent. Fibbins’ vivacious quartet (commissioned by the Chiliringian Quartet) is adventurous (at least when heard directly after Haydn!), but eminently accessible. The composer’s extensive use of pizzicato makes for some striking passages, which were very well handled by the Albion Quartet. Fibbins writes particularly well for the viola and Ventris did that writing full justice. Like their ‘Emperor’ the Albion Quartet’s After Cromer was sharply etched and clearly delineated, in terms both of larger design and individual detail.

After the interval, which followed After Cromer, we were presented, in terms of programming, with a kind of mirror image of the first half of the concert. That had begun with one of the centrally canonic and most frequently played works of all string quartets and followed it with something less familiar. The second half reversed that pattern, beginning, as it did, with Suk’s Meditation and following it with one of the great staples of the Quartet library, Dvořák’s ‘American’ Quartet.

Suk’s beautiful Meditation continued the sequence of quartets based on hymns, since its single movement is essentially a set of variations on the Czech chorale ‘St. Wenceslas’. The melody comes from one of the oldest surviving Czech hymns; indeed, a thirteenth-century text already described it as ‘well-known and old’. (Incidentally, in another link with Haydn’s ‘hymn’ tune, the ‘St. Wenceslas’ melody was, in 1918, proposed by some as a possible national anthem for the new state of Czechoslovakia). The chorale’s text is a prayer for salvation – something which had taken on a particular meaning in the autumn of 1914, in the early stages of War, when Suk was writing this Meditation.

Though brief (some six or seven minutes) the Meditation is powerful in its quiet intensity, soaked in melancholy and apprehension, but always maintaining a stoic dignity and closing with a degree of repose. The text of the original chorale includes the petition “Let not our Nation or future generations perish” and, entirely without flamboyance, Suk’s music expresses that sentiment. This performance by the Albion Quartet was genuinely moving, beginning with the initial statement of the theme played (exquisitely) on muted viola, before being circulated amongst the other instruments.

Like the first two works, Suk’s Meditation has a specific hymn as an identifiable ‘source’. Dvořák’s ‘American’ Quartet seems redolent (especially in the Lento second movement) both of Czech/Bohemian music (including hymns) and of American spirituals, without ever being in any way ‘dependent’ on a single model.

Dvořák’s quartet received a fine performance, commanding yet inviting. The initial pentatonic theme of the first movement took on a particular beauty and power as played by Rosalind Ventris, drawing from her instrument a deal of warmth and beauty, while the playing of Tamsin Waley-Cohen was full of gorgeous colours and was richly poetic. The Lento movement had considerable intensity, the Albion Quartet digging deeper (emotionally speaking) than many quartets do. The third movement is, effectively, a scherzo imbued with the sounds of nature, and was played with an attractive, youthful freshness; the Finale is marked vivace ma non troppo and this performance seemed to fulfil Dvořák’s marking perfectly. This was a reading full of controlled energy and vivacity, with Waley-Cohen’s violin arcing lyrically above the insistent momentum of the accompaniment provided by the rest of the quartet. The driven pulse of the music was thoroughly exhilarating at the close of the movement (and the concert).

This very impressive concert, which I enjoyed thoroughly, sent me off happily on the sometimes wearisome walk to the railway station. Since the Albion Quartet have now begun a residency at the RWCMD, I fervently hope that it won’t be too long before they appear again in the Dora Stoutzker Hall.

Glyn Pursglove

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