Light shines from the darkness of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet at the Roman River Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert: Ellie Fagg & Tom Norris (violins), Dorothea Vogel (viola), Orlando Jopling (cello), Roman River Festival, 30.7.2020. (CS)

Schubert – String Quartet in D minor D810, ‘Death and the Maiden’

The annual Roman River Festival is, in the words of the Festival website, ‘a vibrant, diverse and community-led performing arts festival over 3 long weekends, featuring international quality performers in informal, public and unexpected locations including disused spaces, in Colchester, rural Essex and Suffolk’ featuring ‘charismatic, communicative and interactive music performances, new commissions and collaborations, schools projects in areas with low access and engagement to the arts, community events, and opportunities for over 1,000 young people to get involved in the performing arts’.  Of course, this year it has worn slightly different clothes, morphing into an online event, but has been no less vibrant and, for live-music-starved avid listeners, very welcome indeed.

The Festival closed with a performance of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden string quartet, with Orlando Jopling swapping his artistic director hat for the cellist’s chair, alongside violinists Ellie Fagg and Tom Norris, and viola player Dorothea Vogel.  And, what a performance: perfectly tuned; fluent and onwards driving; lithe and light when required; dense and dark elsewhere.

At the start of the Allegro the musicians did not exaggerate the dynamic swells and retreats but still found a ‘rawness’ that some readings lack, and there was a swift gear change after the opening phrase which established a head-strong purposefulness, at times verging on recklessness but never quite giving in to unruly destructiveness.  The players achieved an excellent balance: Fagg and Norris sat left and right, with the viola and cello nestled within – these inner voices created a driving energy, and the movement was athletic, alert and airy.  I’ve lost count of how many evenings I’ve spent playing through this quartet with friends, but here I was struck anew by the sheer busyness and diversity of Schubert’s musical material and the ceaseless transferring of the ‘paired’ voices.  The ensemble injected ebbs and flows of pulse to articulate the movement’s structure and create spaciousness, but the momentum never flagged.  Before the concluding più mosso there was a cloudy darkness, and from this ominous tension flared an angry intensity which was released in the final bars.  The fury burned itself out, and Schubert’s tempo primo marking became a slower diffusion of ferocity and vehemence.

A strong legato stroke and full sound were employed at the start of the slow movement, with just enough momentum to sustain a sense of the ‘con moto’ Schubert appends to his Andante marking.  Though they had not observed the exposition repeat in the preceding Allegro, here all sections were reprised: sometimes what sounded Mendelssohnian first time round took on a more Beethovian hue subsequently.  The variations’ changing textures and colours were strikingly defined: a strong clean first fiddle melody supported by warm cello pizzicati and a soft churning bed within transmuted into a doleful cello theme surrounded by lacework patterns – complex, finely woven, but strong.  And, one could always hear that crotchet-quaver-quaver heartbeat pulsing.  There was a real surge of intensity at the close and the cello pedal snarled, but the rhythmic unwinding of the viola’s own pedal note eased the anguish.  The whispered close never lost its fulsomeness.

The sfzorandi of the Scherzo had lots of bite and grit.  The tempo was not too hectic which helped to keep the elastic pulls of the hemiolas taut.  And after such acerbity, came the sweetness of Trio: here the tuning and clarity of the high first-fiddle prancing and the melodicism of the lower voices were equally striking.

The litheness of the first movement returned with the concluding Presto.  Perfectly synchronised dotted rhythms together with precisely matched slicing acciaccaturas and dynamic contrasts made it seem that the theme might simply launch off into the air.  Then came a glorious richness of colour in the con forza episode, all the more vibrant after the barely-there diminuendo which had led into the preceding bar of silence.  This was a movement of nimble passagework, sturdy chords and fervent dialogues.  In the closing sprinting prestimisso, flames really did rocket the music skywards.

Many an amateur player will recognise such music-making – the players seated in a quasi-circle, musical instruments hanging on the wall, book-lined shelves and alcoves behind.  ‘Normal’ musical life, as we have known it.  I hope the players enjoyed the customary post-music tipple.

Claire Seymour

This performance can be viewed on the RRF YouTube channel along with the other performances in this year’s Festival.

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