A Wigmore Hall Centenary: Elgar Premieres Remembered

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Elgar: Anthony Marwood (violin), Aleksandar Madžar (piano), Castalian Quartet (Sini Simonen & Daniel Roberts [violins], Charlotte Bonneton [viola], Christopher Graves [cello]), Wigmore Hall, London, 21.5.2019. (CS)

Castalian Quartet

Elgar – Violin Sonata in E minor Op.82, String Quartet in E minor Op.83, Piano Quintet in A minor Op.84

On 21st May 1919, the ‘British String Quartet’, comprising Albert Sammons and W.H. Reed (violins), Raymond Jeremy (viola) and Felix Salmond (cello), gave the premiere of Sir Edward Elgar’s String Quartet at Wigmore Hall, London.  The Piano Quintet also received its premiere on this occasion with pianist William Murdoch joining the string players, and the programme included Elgar’s Violin Sonata.

One hundred years to the day, the Castalian Quartet, violinist Anthony Marwood and pianist Aleksandar Madžar commemorated those historic premieres by replicating the earlier programme before a large audience at Wigmore Hall.

Suffering from ill-health and depressed by the war, in 1917 Elgar left London for ‘Brinkwells’, a woodland cottage ‘retreat’ near Fittleworth in Sussex.  There he was able to focus on the completion of several chamber compositions, returning first to the Violin Sonata in E minor which he had begun in March that year.  By 15th September the Sonata was finished; it was dedicated to Elgar’s friend, Marie Joshua, who had died suddenly, five days earlier and five weeks before the Sonata was heard in full for the first time.

Perhaps not surprisingly the Sonata has an ‘autumnal’ air, though its nostalgic tint never lapses into sentimentality and there is vigour and directness too.  This was immediately apparent in the graceful athleticism of Anthony Marwood’s opening gesture and the bold, resoluteness of the whole of the Allegro.  Marwood and Madžar are regular partners on the concert platform and in the recording studio and their performance of the Sonata displayed an intelligent insight into the architecture of the whole work.  The music always moved forward, though they made space for reflection, even whimsy, as in the mysterious harmonies and slightly fey string-crossings of the second theme.  Madžar was a sensitive ‘accompanist’ and, even as the rippling piano chords rang and the tessitura expanded, Marwood never had to force his well-rounded sound, though the Steinway lid was fully raised.  Madžar’s pedalling was restrained and strong rhythmic definition characterised the piano playing.

The Romance was fairly brisk – a stroll with a spring in its step – and the light manner with which Marwood sailed through the melodic elaborations was beguiling.  The central episode had a certain playfulness of spirit – not rumbustiousness but rather a dreamy wistfulness – complemented by the sweetness of Marwood’s tone.  The lyricism and impetus of the Allegro non troppo, and the move to a major-key tonality, were consoling, though there were shadows and moments of coolness too.  After such an elegant performance of the Sonata, it seemed a pity that we would not hear more from Marwood though the concert promised further riches.

Having completed his Violin Sonata, Elgar immediately began work on the Piano Quintet, but he broke off in October to return to the String Quartet, the first movement of which had been already completed.  By Christmas Eve the final movement was finished; the quartet had two private performances, in January at Elgar’s London residence and at the home of his friend Frank Schuster in April, before the Wigmore Hall premiere.

The Castalian Quartet gave a refined performance of the work, respecting its delicacy and eloquence.  Formed in 2011, in the last few years the Quartet has come increasingly to the fore of the chamber music world, winning 1st Prize at the 2015 Lyon Chamber Music Competition and 3rd Prize at the 2016 Banff Quartet Competition.  2016 also saw them selected by YCAT, and last year the Castalian Quartet received the prestigious inaugural MERITO String Quartet Award & Valentin Erben Prize and won a Borletti-Buitoni Trust Fellowship Award.  This performance confirmed the appositeness of such awards and accolades.  The musicians play with a lovely fresh and relaxed sound.  The four voices are well-balanced and tonally blended, and the intonation absolutely secure.  There was not a phrase in Elgar’s quartet that was not urbanely shaped.

The opening of the Allegro moderato had a lively spontaneity – a slight sense of unrest even – and motifs were developed with striking litheness and vigour.  There was also an impressive clarity of line and lyrical wholesomeness, with accents applied expressively, and the overall structure finely crafted.  Lady Elgar described the second movement, Piacevole (poco andante), as ‘captured sunshine’, and certainly it seems to transport us to a world of simplicity and innocence, such as is evoked by the Serenade for Strings, before the darkness and bittersweet yearning of the music of Elgar’s later years.  There was much fine playing here, Daniel Roberts introducing the easeful melody with directness and Sini Simonen complying with composer’s ‘instruction’ and displaying a beautifully appealing tone.  There are undercurrents of agitation though, and I would have liked a little more rhythmic freedom, a sense of searching and striving, although there was some wonderfully communicative playing from Charlotte Bonneton which enhanced the expressive depth of the movement.  After such artless reflections, the Finale restored the vigour of the first movement, propelling itself ever onwards but the conversations, as shaped by the Castalian Quartet, were always courteous and cultured.

Elgar completed his Piano Quintet in January 1919.  George Bernard Shaw wrote to Elgar that it was ‘the finest thing of its kind since Coriolan.  I don’t know why I associated the two; but I did: there was the same quality – the same vein.’  The works share a sense of drama, and a spirit of ambition, perhaps.  Aleksandar Madžar joined the Castalian Quartet on the Wigmore Hall stage for a performance that was characterised by confidence, accomplishment, accuracy and sophistication.  As in the earlier Sonata, Madžar balanced well with the strings, despite the unorthodoxy of some of Elgar’s piano writing and textures.  One could not fault the security and sincerity of the performance.  So, why did I feel a little unsatisfied at the close?

I think what was ‘missing’ was that ‘reaching’ quality in Elgar’s music: a sense of deep yearning beneath the refinement, an emotional intensity that, while confined within aristocratic gestures, can leave one almost on the verge of tears – almost physically wrought by the time the final cadence at last brings emotional release.  I would have liked the Castalian Quartet to have played with more ‘weight’ to their sound, and perhaps more vibrato too.  While the chocolate silkiness and richness of Bonneton’s tone was once again hugely expressive, I felt that there needed to be greater force rising up from the bottom of the ensemble sound, but cellist Christopher Graves played with a rather a cool assurance.

It’s unfair to close this review on a ‘negative’ note, though.  This was a rewarding evening of music-making – for the players, evidently, and audience alike.

Claire Seymour

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