United Kingdom Grime, Rachmaninov, Bingham, Schubert: Sacconi Quartet (Ben Hancox & Hannah Dawson [violins], Robin Ashwell [viola], Cara Berridge [cello]) Kings Place, London, 28.11.2019. (CS)
Helen Grime – String Quartet (London premiere)
Rachmaninov – Romance for String Quartet
Judith Bingham – Goya’s Dog (world premiere)
Schubert – String Quartet No.14 D810, Death and the Maiden
Venus will continue to be ‘unwrapped’ for one more month at Kings Place, and on this occasion it was the turn of the Sacconi Quartet to celebrate the ‘creative firepower’ of two contemporary female composers, Helen Grime and Judith Bingham, whose works were heard alongside two Romantic works – an unfamiliar early Romance by Rachmaninov and Schubert’s late masterpiece, Death and the Maiden.
This was the London premiere of Grime’s String Quartet which was commissioned by the Edinburgh Quartet and premiered in 2014. The three movements segue and dovetail, creating a sense of organic development of musical material and of flickering, fluctuating pulse. In fact, much of the material seems to be shared by all three movements, and the Sacconi had the measure of the form and musical arguments. I was reminded of Britten at the opening, specifically that composer’s Third Quartet, with its opening Duets movement, and the Sacconi’s enjoyed exploring the timbral variations: the rapid duet for second violin and viola was set against cello rumbles and incisive chords; pizzicatos snapped into flutterings; the concluding duo for first violin and cello pushed effectively forwards in the long second movement. Here there was a sense at first of retreat and repose – and the Sacconi’s lightness of bow stroke created an airy easefulness – later of lyrical searching and stratospheric striving. The closing descent once more to stillness was interrupted by viola interjections which initiated an agitated moto perpetuo that, just about, kept the threat of wild release in check. Perhaps when the Sacconi Quartet are even more familiar with Grime’s String Quartet they will grab the inherent tension in this movement by the scruff of the neck, evince greater freedom, and take even more risks.
Judith Bingham’s Goya’s Dog, receiving its world premiere here, certainly demanded some risk-taking. Bingham presents a musical embodiment of her response to four of Francisco Goya’s vivid, at times, phantasmagorical, prints and paintings of animals. The painter’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (the movement was titled here The Dream of Reason and Imagination) depicts a sleeping man (thought to be Goya) surrounded by a swarm of strange flying creatures, which have invaded his mind when reason is at rest. Many of the creatures are symbolic: owls and bats represent ignorance and evil, while the watchful lynx, with its superb night-time vision, which lies at the artist’s feet signifies the ability to see Truth. The Sacconi certainly captured the restlessness and agitation of the movement, with its whizzing, whirring, dancing, diverting gestures. The Duchess of Alba’s Lapdog: one small white Bolognese pulsated with both energy and delicacy, though I thought that the overall ensemble tone might have been still rawer.
There was, however, a nightmarish quality about Goya’s Dog: the head of a dog. This is one of the Black Paintings that the artist painted on the walls of the Quinta del Sordo (a country house outside Madrid that he occupied in the early 1820s) in which the head of a tiny, helpless dog seems about to be consumed by an all-overpowering wave. The cello’s initial ponderings suggested vulnerability and struggle; the central motif was an undulating figure which turn in and back on itself repetitively. After a strikingly eloquent viola solo, a steady stepwise pizzicato descent led only to ambiguity. A Bull Stands his Ground: A fighting bull shook us brusquely from our reflections, though. The tense stare between four toreadors and a bull was captured by the music’s assertive challenges; the danger and violence – in the painting two men lie dead at the bull’s feet – was conjured by the players’ stamping feet, which imitated the ritualistic rhythm of hooves and human honour, and the fiery snort of the animal’s breath. As a fiddle-player, I can’t imagine retaining technical composure while stamping my feet vigorously; the Sacconi shared a look of intense concentration and the final chords ricocheted slightly. Only a second hearing will confirm whether that was their intent or an accident of their undoubted dramatic commitment.
These two contemporary works were separated by Rachmaninov’s Romance for String Quartet, one of two surviving movements of a planned quartet, begun in 1890 but left incomplete. It certainly served to allow the dust to settle, but while it was pleasing that the Sacconi did not wallow in rich Romantic indulgence, preferring to highlight the voices within the texture rather than the density and plushness of the ensemble voice, at times I found the sound rather too light. The central section moved forwards engagingly but Hancox’s solo violin melody, supported by gentle pizzicatos, might have sung more warmly, the sound projected with a firmer vibrato and focus. That said, I was seated to the far left of Hall One, and the Sacconi had placed themselves left of centre-stage; I felt rather out of line of the focus of the ensemble sound, and a fellow concert-goer, seated on the opposite side did not concur with my impression.
And, so, after the unfamiliar came Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet, which, as one might have anticipated, did not in the Sacconi’s hands sound familiar at all. I was immediately hooked in by the incisive, even nasally, tone of the opening gesture of the Allegro, which the players let ring, and by the coolness of the contrasting pianissimo answering phrase, here played with no vibrato. And, the players’ lightness of touch paradoxically served to emphasise the emotive darkness of the ‘busy’ argumentative counterpoint, which was crisp and biting. But, I felt that it took a little while for the ensemble and intonation to nestle into a groove; and I found the extreme dynamic contrasts – sometimes the sound was withered to the merest wisp, diminishing the music’s eloquence – both startling and slightly off-putting. But, I liked the way that the recapitulation pushed forwards, the bow strokes really resonating.
The Andante con moto observed the same spirit of contrast and opposition: the first phrase was the merest throb, the answering phrase surged in power, as Schubert asks, but did not retreat as expected, creating an unexpected assertiveness. There was much agitation and rhythmic dynamism as the variations unfolded, but perhaps not the philosophical expanse that the music seems to encompass. The Sacconi’s approach to the Scherzo was persuasive though: they balanced the demands and dialogue of melody and rhythm successfully, avoiding an undue accent on the initiating off-beat pulse and instead moving towards the quavers which serve as a springboard into the next statement of the motif. The Trio sang warmly (Schubert’s pp dynamic was interpreted as a comfortable mp) – and offered a rare moment free from care. The precision of the Presto was impressive: the scurrying galop seemed to invoke the spirit of Mendelssohn. But, as the movement progressed, occasionally the pace seemed relentless as the Sacconi eschewed the moments – such as the unified sforzando chords of the second subject – that Schubert offers to take one’s foot off the accelerator and sink into the richness of the ensemble plushness, before setting off in pursuit again. Instead the Sacconi raced on with ever-growing intensity: it was certainly exciting, though not always exact.
As always, the Sacconi Quartet offered much food for thought, and playing to both admire and enjoy. On this occasion, though, I felt that the programme didn’t quite cohere: the moods and demands of the four works performed seemed to be in antagonism with each other at times, and I felt that overall the Sacconi’s performance sometimes felt a little tense. But, I’d very much like to have the opportunity to hear the works by Grime and Bingham again. So, Venus was certainly unwrapped.