United Kingdom Schubert and the Mendelssohns: Gillian Keith (soprano), Consone Quartet (Agata Daraskaite & Magdalena Loth-Hill [violins], Elitsa Bogdanova [viola], George Ross [cello]), Kings Place, 24.2.2019. (CS)
Franz Schubert – String Quartet No.4 in C D46; ‘Die abgeblühte Linde’, ‘Der Jüngling an der Quelle’, ‘Das Mädchen’, ‘Die Männer sind méchant’, ‘Die Liebe hat gelogen’, ‘Du bist die Ruh’ (arr. Tom Randle)
Fanny & Felix Mendelssohn – ‘Frühlingsglaube’, ‘Wartend’, ‘Verlust’ (Fanny Mendelssohn), ‘Frage’
Felix Mendelssohn – String Quartet No.2 in A minor Op.13
Formed when the constituent musicians were studying at the Royal College of Music, the Consone Quartet is dedicated to exploring late Classical/early Romantic repertoire on period instruments. The Quartet won the 2016 Royal Over-Seas League Ensemble Prize, and have since made their debuts at the Buxton Festival, Brighton Early Music Festival, Cadogan Hall and Wigmore Hall. Their first CD, of Haydn and Mendelssohn, was released on the Ambronay Editions label in autumn last year.
Now they can add Kings Place to their venues list, after this assured London Chamber Music Society recital, with soprano Gillian Keith. This was ‘serious’ music-making – concentrated, thoughtful, carefully considered – but the Quartet’s interpretations were fresh and personal, and the playing relaxed and warm. They produce an ensemble sound which is eminently democratic. Leader Agata Daraskaite avoids undue demonstrativeness, but is a calm and confident player; her tone is clean and even, and if there were times in this concert where I thought that the music intimated the need for a more authoritative ‘stamp’ from the first violin, then it was clear that the rehearsal process had been collegiate and that her colleagues looked to Daraskaite to ensure that they executed what is a collective vision. Cellist George Ross is a very safe pair of hands at the foundation; all is shapely and sensitive, and Ross’s pizzicato playing is particularly articulate and strong. Magdalena Loth-Hill and Elitsa Bogdanova form a well-blended duo in the middle, eager to bring their voices to the fore, responsive to unfolding dialogues.
The concert began with Schubert’s String Quartet No.4 in C D46 which dates from 1813. The composer may have been only sixteen years-of-age when he wrote this work, in just five days, but it is no mere adolescent scribbling, and the Consone Quartet gave the music the respect it deserves. Little vibrato warmed the chromatic descents of the opening Adagio, and the mood was tense, even ominous, creating a sense of urgency that persisted through the ensuing Allegro con moto. The Consone Quartet took a little time to settle: the intonation, particularly in the pronounced chords, was not always absolutely unanimous. But, the unaffected expressiveness of the Andante con moto was charming and the Minuetto was characterised by delicacy and nuance; dynamics were graded precisely, with care and naturalness. A boisterous Allegro concluded the work, and the freshness of the sound and clarity of the voices seemed to look ahead to Mendelssohn.
Indeed, the concert was heading in that direction, but first there was more Schubert: six songs arranged for voice and string quartet by Tom Randle – the familiar in unfamiliar guise. A programme note by Gillian Keith explained the motivation for these arrangements: her experience of singing lieder in different arrangements, the existence of many transcriptions for piano, the inherent drama of the poetry Schubert set, and the variety and scope in the sound-world Schubert creates with his piano accompaniments. “The step from piano to string quartet is not so great a leap as to lose the intimacy and subtlety of Schubert’s piano line, but it allows for fresh sounds that enhance the drama and palate of these songs,” Keith attests. And, having heard the arrangements performed by such sincerity by Keith and the Consone Quartet, I’m inclined to agree.
The vocal line shone, with an almost Straussian gleam, in ‘Die abgeblühte Linde’ as the linden blossomed, Ross’s gentle repetitions intimating the imminent burgeoning of the buds. The cello’s light pizzicato in ‘Der Jüngling an der Quelle’ (The young by the spring) contributed to the natural soundscape of rustling poplars and tricking streams that the Consone Quartet conjured, creating a quasi-Mahlerian ambience, and the following ‘Das Mädchen’ sustained the folky spirit. ‘Die Männer sind méchant’ (Men are faithless) drew anger and rhythmic vigour from the Consone, and fire and power from Keith as the poet-speaker bewailed her lover’s faithlessness. The timbres created by Randall’s arrangement of ‘Die Liebe hat gelogen’ (Love has lied) beautifully complemented Schubert’s harmonic colours, moving from a floating ethereality to real strength, then back to cool dissonance and concluding with a telling graininess as the betrayed protagonist begged his heart to cease. Keith’s commitment to the drama of both text and music was compelling. Singing from memory, she began the sequence standing behind the Consone, and as the songs progressed the soprano moved to the fore, crossed the stage, moved nearer to the instrumentalists, then turned away. The ‘theatre’ was delivered with a light touch and without affectation.
After the interval we heard four more arrangements by Randall, this time of songs by Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn (three and one respectively). The airy string textures in ‘Frühlingsglaube’ (Spring faith) were a perfect support for Keith’s vocal line which glistened with excitement. ‘Wartend’ (Waiting) was full of drama and restlessness, the urgency of Keith’s sustained cry, “Komme du bald!” (Come soon!), in the central stanza fading exquisitely at the close to fragile hope.
‘Frage’ (Question) led us naturally in the final item in the concert, Mendelssohn’s A minor Quartet Op.13, the pianissimo opening of the song – “Ist es wahr?” (Is it true?) – establishing the motif which recurs throughout the quartet, and which itself recalls Beethoven’s permutations of “Muss es sein?” (Must it be?) in his final Op.135 quartet. The Consone Quartet were firmly into their stride now; the intonation and cogency of ensemble were assured, although there were times when I thought that individual voices might be lifted into the foreground with greater dominance. But, the players’ careful articulation of their thoughtful reflections did encourage one to hear the familiar afresh. The brief introductory Adagio began with a strong core to the tone, but the second phrase was more speculative; then a hint of turbulence crept it, as the motto question sowed seeds of uncertainty which sprang forth with vigour in the Allegro vivace. The fugal writing in the Adagio non lento was sensitively shaped, while the staccatissimo articulation of the Allegro di molto episode in the two-part Intermezzo was so taut and sharp that one could almost feel the rapid pianissimo stutterings in the air. Daraskaite played the theme of this movement with relaxed sweetness as the Consone captured a mood of serene urbanity. Such gentility was excitedly swept aside by the rhetorical dramas of the Presto.
This was a well-considered and assuredly executed programme. The freshness and sincerity of the music-making readily brought to mind the soirées at which Schubert and the Mendelssohns had sung and played this music for and with their family and friends.