Incisive counterpoint from the Albion Quartet at Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Maconchy, Waley-Cohen, Beethoven: Albion String Quartet (Tamsin Waley-Cohen & Emma Parker [violins], Ann Beilby [viola], Nathaniel Boyd [cello]). Wigmore Hall, London, live streamed on 29.9.2020. (CS)

Albion String Quartet (c) Steve Gullick

Elizabeth Maconchy – String Quartet No.3
Freya Waley-Cohen – Snap Dragon
Beethoven – String Quartet in F Op.135

The Albion Quartet were formed in 2016 and are resident at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama.  I’ve not heard them perform before but, gathering my notes and preparing to listen to this live-streamed lunchtime recital at Wigmore Hall, I felt an instinctive warmth towards the ensemble because during the 1990s I played in an ensemble of the same name – that string quartet being named after the cul-de-sac, neatly tucked behind Canterbury Cathedral, in which I then resided, during my postgraduate studies.

Not that that musical foursome was ever capable of ambitious and inventive programming of the sort that the Albion Quartet offered here, though.  They began with Elizabeth Maconchy’s Third String Quartet, closed with Beethoven’s final essay in the oeuvre, and in between presented Snap Dragon by Freya Waley-Cohen, the sister of leader Tamsin Waley-Cohen.

The string quartet was at the core of Maconchy’s art.  She wrote thirteen quartets, the first in 1932 – later recalling, during a Radio 3 broadcast, ‘Talking About Music’, in 1977 that at the time “I felt that this is something that I enjoyed doing tremendously” – and the last in 1984.  She found the quartet medium enabled her to explore the ‘bones of music’, as she put it during a BBC Third Programme ‘Composer’s Portrait’ in June 1966, further explaining: “I have found the string quartet above all best suited to the expression of the kind of music I want to write – music as an impassioned argument … Dramatic and emotional tension is created by means of counterpoint in much the same way as happens in a play.  The characters are established as individuals, each with his own differentiated characteristics: the drama then grows from the interplay of these characters – the clash of their ideas and the way in which they react upon each other.  Thus in a string quartet one has the perfect vehicle for dramatic expression of this sort: four characters engaged in statement and comment, passionate argument, digression, restatement, perhaps final agreement – the solution of the problem.” (‘The Composer Speak’, BBC Radio 3, 17th October 1971)

Certainly, the single-movement, cyclic Third Quartet – which was premiered in October 1938 by the New Hungarian String Quartet at a London Contemporary Music Centre concert at Cowdray Hall – expounds weighty, gritty arguments, and the Albion embraced its strong-minded contrapuntal tussles with confidence and unwavering accord.  The density of the opening Lento section was suffused with tension, as if the four-voices were locked together, contemplating which way to turn, tug and forge, just as the major-seventh dissonances and harmonic ambiguities debated which way to venture forth.  The concentration of Maconchy’s music did not prevent the Albion Quartet from generating shoots of drama which sprung into the following Presto.  Perhaps a little more lightness and playfulness might have made the glissandi more buoyant?

Ann Beilby sculpted a firm, focused solo song in the Andante, but here too the power and weight of the impassioned ensemble voices was somewhat unalleviated: Maconchy softens the absorbing intensity with moments of lyricism which I felt might effuse more sweetness.   Similarly, Waley-Cohen’s virtuosity is impressive, and her tone has a wonderfully rich grain, but in the cadenza-like exhortations of the second Presto section there was an occasional forcefulness which pushed the anguish into abrasiveness.  That said, the ensemble interactions were totally persuasive, the instruments never fundamentally disagreeing even as they debated, and – led by Waley-Cohen’s eloquent melodising and cellist Nathaniel Boyd’s full but gentle pizzicato rhythms – they came together in a final, unresolved position of rest which was vital and life-affirming.

Freya Waley-Cohen, who was Associate Composer of Wigmore Hall during the 2019-20 season, has described Snap Dragon as “‘character driven’ in an abstract sense – including in the moments where the four players become individual soloists, pulling out of the framework of the ‘togetherness’ of being a string quartet.”  It was a good choice, then, to follow Maconchy’s argumentative excursions, and the Albion Quartet obviously enjoyed playing the work, which was commissioned by the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival and first performed by the Flux Quartet in August 2017 at the New Mexico Museum of Art – and which the Albion themselves performed at Wigmore Hall in November 2019.  The eponymous flowers are so named because of their resemblance to a dragon’s face and their petal-mouths that open and close when squeezed.  Waley-Cohen’s music is certainly spiky and fiery, and the complex snaps, cracks and explosions were performed with crystalline precision and airiness.  There are moments of peace, though, even within the volatile opening section, and these lead to a lighter, more serene central section, a welcome emotional rest before the assertive arguments resumed.  The Albion’s confident ensemble playing made the work’s aural and intellectual challenges more lucid than they might have been, at this first hearing.

Beethoven’s Op.135 String Quartet is both his final string quartet and his last major composition.  It invites questions, its ‘conventional’ four-movement form seeming to turn its back on the experiments of the preceding late quartets and its final movement being inscribed with its own enigmatic question, ‘Muss es sein?’  ‘What must be?’ we wonder.  The Albion’s answer was, in the Allegretto, refined and lucid: they’d already displayed their propensity for textural lattice-work and incisive counterpoint, and here they added startling dynamic contrasts and rhythmic litheness.  But, only Boyd seemed eager to tap into the music’s humorous vein, as his musical partners adopted quite a sombre approach to Beethoven’s frolicking motifs.  The intonation was immaculate, the balance even and the tone shiningly clean, though some listeners might like a warmer ensemble sound, and for relaxation to occasionally alleviate the alertness and bite.

The Scherzo scampered on Mendelssohnian tiptoes and the sheer precision of the playing was astounding, but again Beethoven’s ‘jokes’ were delivered with a rather stern musical stare.  Surely the composer is wryly teasing the players when the violin is propelled up the E string to leap about with syncopated hyper-manic animation, while the lower voices pound out an ostinato motif 48 times?  Here, it all became rather overwrought and frenetic, the repetitions growling ferociously with Waley-Cohen’s metallic glints slicing above.

Beethoven marks the third movement ‘cantate e tranquillo’, and the opening ‘sotto voce’, but the Albion retained a sense of inner tension.  I missed the essential serenity that is at the heart of Beethoven’s great, expansive slow movements, however elaborate the surface expression.  I hear the music slowly, inexorably rolling onwards, inevitable and eternal; but here, there was a certain unrest that, for me, undermined the sublimity.  It was evident in details such as the minuscule silence that preceded the Più Lento, when the final note of the viola’s G-F-Fb slide transforms enharmonically in the new section to a tonicized E, surely suggesting the transition should be as seamless as breathing.  Dynamic contrasts were again extreme; pianissimos almost blanched, the rinforzandos not just a sudden increase of volume but also a hardening of the tone.  There was increasing gentleness with the return of the Lento assai material, but I felt that Waley-Cohen might have sung with more presence, her exquisite gentility infused with greater songfulness.

The loud, vibrato-less ‘Es muss sein’s were assertive and quite glassy.  While much philosophical hand-wringing has been prompted by Beethoven’s epigraph, it’s worth remember that the conundrum may have had more mundane origins: one anecdote suggests that it was the habitual exchange between Beethoven and his housekeeper Frau Schnaps when she asked for her weekly allowance; another that it arose in a conversation between Ignaz Dempscher and Beethoven when the former wanted to host a performance of Beethoven’s Op.130 and queried the need to pay 50  florins to the Schuppanzigh Quartet for the privilege.  The Allegro began brusquely assertively, though Boyd’s perky and eloquent bass line did gradually encourage a collective relaxation, if not quite cheerful insouciance; but the repetitions of the Grave were again rather dour.  There seems to me to be an incipient smile in the music, which broadens widely as the music leaks into the return of the Allegro material.

There’s no doubting the technical accomplishment nor the intellectual integrity of the Albion Quartet’s playing and interpretation, but I think in this movement especially they could simply have let the music speak for itself.  The encore, the Adagio from Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet in F minor Op.20 No.5, showed that music can be simultaneously sincere, sophisticated and sweet.

Claire Seymour

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