Outstanding playing from the Albion Quartet in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mendelssohn, Brahms: Albion Quartet (Tamsin Waley-Cohen, Emma Parker [violins], Ann Beilby [viola], Nathaniel Boyd [cello]). Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff. 11.2.2020. (GPu)

Albion Quartet (c) Steve Gullick

Mendelssohn – Capriccio, from String Quartet, Op.81.

Brahms – String Quartet No.3, Op.67

The major work in this concert was, of course, Brahms’s Third String Quartet. The Albion Quartet began their lunchtime concert with a short piece by Mendelssohn as a kind of musical amuse-bouche ahead of the main ‘dish’. One can ‘read’ the great Op.67 quartet as, in part, a Brahmsian affirmation of his belief in the essential virtues of the German ‘classical’ tradition and of his place in that tradition.

The most obvious figure with whom much of Brahms’s mature work is in repeated dialogue is, of course, Beethoven. But in this Quartet Brahms seems, through musical dialogues with other predecessors to be reflecting on the between Romanticism and the Classical tradition. The use of folk-like melodies (though they were written by Brahms himself) in the first and third movements has clear affinities with Haydn’s use of such materials. In the opening vivace, one cannot really disagree, I think, with Peter Latham’s view (in his Brahms, 1966) that it was ‘assuredly … Haydn who hummed in Brahms’s ear the opening strain of the first movement, and suggested the fun that could be got by first contrasting and then combining rhythms of six-eight and two-four’. The ensuing Andante reminds me, at least, of Mendelssohn and in the third movement (with its extended solo for the violist) there are surely reminiscences of the lyrical writing for the viola in Schubert’s G major quartet.

Yet the quartet as a whole is undeniably very much Brahms. This is no mere pastiche of earlier composers. The earlier music is seen, distinctly, through the eyes of Brahms. There are what I would call ‘echoes’ of Haydn elsewhere in Brahms’s work of course. Lawrence Kramer’s chapter ‘The kitten and the tiger: Tovey’s Haydn’ in the Cambridge Companion to Haydn (ed. Caryl Clark, 2005) quotes some delightfully witty observations (which are as perceptive as they are witty) by Donald Tovey. One tells us that the second subject in the finale of Haydn’s Symphony 104 contains ‘an impudent prophetic plagiarism of Brahms’s “cadence-theme”’ in the finale of his Second Symphony. Tovey’s comment turns the idea of ‘influence’ on its head and effectively replaces it with the idea of musical dialogues which don’t respect mere chronology or the narrative history. Brahms debt to Haydn – or, if one prefers it – how Haydn commits prophetic plagiaries of Brahms would make a rewarding study, though this is no place to undertake it.

It is in such terms that I find myself listening to this last of Brahms’s string quartets. It got a powerful performance from the relatively youthful, but highly accomplished Albion Quartet. Their work is always vigorous and committed, but they can be gentle and subtle too, as they were here. The balance of the ensemble is perfect, and the quartet’s sense of tonal variety is altogether impressive. The leading role given to her instrument in the third movement allowed Ann Beilby to shine as a soloist, but like all good quartets (and this is a very good quartet) the music-making was never about one musician. Beilby’s lyrical viola ‘needed’ the muted (literally) support of the violins and cello and was given it quite delightfully. The mutual respect among the four members of the quartet is always evident, in their playing and in their companionable manner on stage.

They had begun their concert with Mendelssohn’s brief Capriccio. This was published posthumously as one of the Four Pieces for String Quartet (Op.81). This has sometimes been called (and even played as) a String Quartet. The four pieces were, however, written at different times and have no kind of shared unity or identity. The ‘Four Pieces’ are an Andante in E major (written in 1847), a Scherzo in A minor (1847), this Capriccio (1843) and a Fugue in E flat major (1827). The Capriccio is, I think, the finest of the four movements and is best heard as a free-standing piece, as it was here. Like Brahms, Mendelssohn also felt the influence of Haydn, audible most clearly (though not only there) in early works such as the 12 youthful string symphonies written between 1821 and 1823 (i.e. around the age of 13) – especially in No.7 in D minor and No.8 in D major.

The brief Capriccio (some 5-6 minutes in performance) opens slowly, in a manner not unrelated to some of the slow movements in Haydn’s quartets, but then gathers considerable momentum in what follows (it is marked ‘Andante con moto – Allegro fugato, assai vivace’). The Albion Quartet clearly relished both the andante elements of the piece and the rapid, vivace conclusion. Their performance grabbed and held the attention of the considerable audience they had attracted. I was pleased to see a good many students in the hall – some of whom I knew to be string players (still ‘in Residency’ at the RWCMD, the members of the Quartet teach some of these students, who tell me what fine teachers they are). This was a firecracker of an opening to the concert, which, like the more ‘sober’ and far lengthier quartet which followed raised interesting questions about how ‘Romantic’ composers could put to use the music of their ‘classical’ predecessors. Perhaps, indeed, this concert, without necessarily intending to do, challenged the continued usefulness of such terms. While I can see the sense in describing a particular piece of music as either ‘classical’ or ‘romantic’, I am not sure that either term is ever fully satisfactory as a description of the entire work of any substantial composer.

The Albion Quartet, though both live performances and recordings are establishing themselves as amongst the leading British quartets. I am already looking forward to their concert scheduled for May 31st – the programme for which  is made up of quartets by Haydn, Mozart and Dvořák.

Glyn Pursglove

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