Real Mastery from the Sacconi Quartet at Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Dove, Haydn, Janáček: Sacconi Quartet (Ben Hancox & Hannah Dawson [violins], Robin Ashwell [viola], Cara Berridge [cello]), Wigmore Hall, London, 8.5.2018. (CS)

Sacconi Quartet (c) Emilie Bailey
Sacconi Quartet (c) Emilie Bailey

DoveOut of Time
Haydn –  String Quartet in E major Op.54 No.3; String Quartet in F minor Op.55 No.2, ‘The Razor’
Janáček – String Quartet No.2, ‘Intimate Letters’

‘I can’t describe the suffering I lived through at the time. […] When the Moravian Quartet were due to play his Second String Quartet, dedicated to Mrs Stösslová and called ‘Intimate Letters’, I tried as hard as I could to prevent the work from carrying this title.  I didn’t succeed.  For a long time I didn’t go to concerts where I’d hear that passionate rearing up of Leoš’s longing for another woman – a longing which destroyed him.’

Zdenzka Janáčková’s interpretation (as translated and edited by esteemed Janáček scholar, John Tyrrell) of the cause of her husband’s death may, understandably, be subjective, but there is no doubting that the work that Janáček originally entitled Love Letters, and which was composed in just a few weeks at the start of 1928, was the composition most directly inspired by his infatuation with his ‘muse’, Kamila Stösslová – a humble and loyal housewife who was somewhat bemused by the attentions of the venerable composer.  The posthumous premieres of the quartet, first private then public, were given in September 1928 by the Brno-based Moravian Quartet in the month following the composer’s death.  And, given that in the eponymous correspondence, the sentiments of which found expression in the Second Quartet, Janáček imagined Kamila as his wife, pregnant with child, perhaps Zdenzka wasn’t so wide of the mark after all.

Cellist Cara Berridge’s trill was a passion-loaded bullet at the start of the Sacconi Quartet’s performance of Janáček’s String Quartet No.2 at Wigmore Hall, firing violinists Ben Hancox and Hannah Dawson into a double-stopped outpouring that rippled with feeling, before Robin Ashwell quelled the flaming sentiments with vibrato-less composure and clarity.  Such oscillations between a dangerously wild freedom and moments of cool lucidity characterised this performance, in which the four instrumental voices were equal in status, individualised in demeanour, and flexible in role, resulting in an interpretation which was entirely persuasive and immersing.

At times ‘controlled chaos’ seemed a fitting epithet, but when the chains seemed to be on the verge of breaking loose, somehow the threads cohered, and order and equanimity were restored.  It takes real mastery, as individuals and ensemble players, for four musicians to shape such extreme, impassioned musical arguments with this degree of freedom, consistency and rationality.  Berridge often proved a sure foundation and guide through the shifting tempi and moods.  Quieter, slower, more consonant episodes spoke lucidly of a sincere love, and at the close of the first movement there was a wonderful sense of belief, conveyed by harmonic concordance, registral expanse, and a surging crescendo of faith, from piano to a blazing fortissimo of conviction.

The Adagio, which embodies the composer’s fantasies about the birth of a son, placed happiness and beauty before troubled intensity, though the latter was never wholly absent.  Wonderfully crisp and clear oscillations pushed the lyrical striving higher and higher, and Hancox’s soaring climaxes rang with heart-clenching power and precision.  The ensemble-playing in the Moderato was simply stunning: a glossy sheen marked the initial homophony, melodic utterances sang with a folk simplicity, elisions between shifting sections were effortlessly realised.  Structural coherence was also striking in the final Allegro, which began with folksy insouciance and swagger.  Here the individual players seemed to relish the idiosyncratic character and divergence afforded to them by Janáček; Dawson, in particular, made me notice vibrant trills, resonant pizzicatos and other details that I’d not previously noticed and led confidently out of some of the abrasive ensemble pinnacles.

On 18 February 1928, Janáček urged Kamila, ‘… don’t burn this letter.  It will be good when one day it’s known that every life has its heads and tails’ (Intimate Letters, ed. and transl. John Tyrrell, 1994).   It was this compulsion to speak of his love, first to Kamila in the ‘Intimate Letters’ and then to us through his music, that the Sacconi Quartet so compellingly communicated.  They did not pull and push the score around, they ‘simply’ played the notes; and we understood all of Janáček’s passion and pain, and were touched by both the purity and the pathos of his love.

Two string quartets by Haydn formed the centre of the programme.  As a violinist (of sorts), I should probably know the Op.54 and Op.55 sets better than I do, but what struck me most about the Sacconi Quartet’s interpretation of the third of the Op.54 quartets was how refreshingly they highlighted the song and dance which infuses and drives the music and, more than that, the sort of social conversations that would accompany such occasions – perhaps not so unusual for the music of this period, but communicatively emphasised here.

In a songful opening, the inner two voices led the way, until Hancox’s interruptions added decorative brightness in a manner reminiscent of what Charles Rosen calls the ‘sociable comedy’ of Haydn’s art.  The players’ demeanour was relaxed, with plentiful smiles and constant eye contact.  Nothing was ‘routine’, but the courtly elegance was assured.  The Largo cantabile, too, was genteel, the full sound suggesting aristocratic self-assurance.  One could imagine courtly dancers, airily lifting their poised feet in shapely steps, directed by Berridge’s focused bass.  There was a lovely freedom to the Menuetto as the players partnered up in pairs, while the unisons were flawlessly tuned.  The ‘song’ was of a more operatic nature in the final Presto, as the busyness and scurrying whipped up a jubilant air.

With the F minor Quartet, Op.55 No.2, things took a more sober turn, the slow double variations with which the quartet begins inspiring greater intensity of sound from the players.  Hancox provided strong leadership as the Quartet employed richly expressive rubatos to suggest thoughtful ponderings which eventually drove the first violin and cello to the highest reaches – superbly and securely executed.  The four voices became increasingly independent, until the conclusion brought a quasi-sigh; after the roving a point of rest had been reached.  Haydn-esque irony returned in the second movement Allegro as odd hiatuses, accents, turns and acciaccaturas evoked a prickly mood; it was no surprise that with the arrival of a fugal episodes, the individual entries were weighty and forthright, as if each voice as determined to have their say.

In contrast, lyricism sweetened the Menuetto, and careful shaping of the theme’s repeated crotchets created interest and elegance.  The origin of the quartet’s nickname, ‘Razor’, is probably apocryphal – the story goes that Haydn promised to exchange his best quartet for some decent razors, the latter being in scant supply at the  Esterházy court – but the tale added a touch of wryness to the chromatic sliding of the theme of the Presto, in which one had a sense of the settling of disputes among old friends and of concurrence at the conclusion that they must agree to differ.

The Sacconi Quartet had opened the recital with Jonathan Dove’s six-movement Out of Time, first heard in 2001.  Commissioned by the Summer Music Society of Dorset and Mrs Elizabeth Allsebrook in memory of her husband, Peter Allsebrook, the serenade, in the composer’s words, is not a ‘musical portrait, but it was suggested by his irresistible, infectious energy, and by his departure’.  Certainly, the Sacconi Quartet conjured the wide emotional range evoked in the first five movements, from vivaciousness, to quiet composure, from unpredictability and passion to determination, optimism and joy.  Hancox and Dawson bristled with iridescent vigour in the urgent repetitions which commence the opening movement before the moto perpetuo eased into a flowing cello theme that momentarily held the vibrant force at bay.

Calm ensued in a slow movement, the ‘gentle pulsings’ of which Dove describes as ‘slightly out of time with each other, like sleepers in the same room’.  The fragrant wafting phrases of the upper strings were kept delicately air-born by Berridge’s precise pizzicatos, the former growing in weight and definition – as if dreams fed the sleepers’ imaginations – before the breathing quietened into hushed restfulness.  ‘Stomping’ was earthy and forthright, the rhythmic declamations surging warmly forward until knocked off balance by asymmetric interruptions which brought to mind Ophelia’s lament for the loss of human reason, ‘like sweet bells jangled out of time, and harsh’.  In the following two movements, ‘Lively’ and ‘Fast’, breathlessly fleet scurrying elided seamlessly with wistful folksong-like snatches.

After such exuberance, came the quiet consolations of elegy.  Gentle, unaffected melodism diffused into spatial expanse as the stratospheric ascent of viola and violins was balanced by the cello’s scalic falls, opening up a vista whose static purity evoked the pure abstraction required by Sophocles in the divine choric laments of classical Greek drama.  Both out of time, and timeless.

Claire Seymour

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