Haydn and Mozart brighten a dark December evening in London

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn, Scottish folk music, and Mozart: Anthony Friend (clarinet), Maxwell Quartet (Colin Scobie, George Smith [violins], Elliot Perks [viola], Duncan Strachan [cello]). St John’s, Waterloo, London, 13.12.2020. (MB)

Anthony Friend (clarinet) & Maxwell Quartet (c) Matthew Johnson

Haydn – String Quartet in C major, Op.74 No.1

Scottish folk music

Mozart – Clarinet Quintet in A major, KV 581

A highlight of my (late) summer was a visit to the Bandstand Chamber Festival in Battersea Park. For the dark nights, in every sense, of December, artistic director Anthony Friend has had the festival decamp a little further down the Thames to St John’s, Waterloo under the new guise of ‘Spotlight Chamber Concerts’. Very apt, too, the church in darkness, musicians spotlit in front of the altar steps.

The Maxwell Quartet’s concert (later joined by Friend on the clarinet) opened in arresting fashion, thanks to Haydn’s grand gesture — a simple perfect cadence, and yet… — to open his Op.74 No.1. It is very much a ‘London’ quartet, written for the same public as those astonishing final dozen symphonies, and there seemed in these darkest of times something special indeed to hearing it in a city that has suffered so greatly not only this year but ever since Cameron’s infernal referendum. Keenness of playing encompassed civilisation and rusticity, detail and longer line, Haydn’s vision of humanity thus diverse and reconciled: a European union. I was struck by the concision of the whole, nowhere more so than in a development that, in performance as on the page, changes everything and yet has us return. The surprises, well-nigh Beethovenian, of the recapitulation, if we may call it that, afforded both delight and imperative to listen.

Cultivated innocence characterised the Andantino grazioso. Such dialectical reconciliation — not for nothing was Haydn Beethoven’s teacher — did not efface but rather brought into relief both the movement’s darker movements and the composer’s ever-astonishing powers of invention. Speaking of invention, what an extraordinary movement the Minuet is, here relished and communicated as such with evident love and understanding. Its swing said so much, as did the relaxation, finely judged, of its A major Trio. The finale fizzed with character, connoisseurship, and yes, invention. As in the first movement, performance made clear the richness of use to which Haydn puts his material. It was, again like the opening, impressive in a frankly symphonic sense that remained true to this mesmerising chamber music for Johann Peter Salomon, an earlier ‘citizen of nowhere’.

There remain — dare one even use that verb any more? — other unions for our political masters to break, not least that with us since 1707. At least for this evening, though, that could be postponed, the Maxwell players rewarding us with a little Scottish folk music, as arranged by fiddlers William Marshall and Isaac Cooper. In excellent command of the idiom, the players built and shaped both selections finely.

We were left in no doubt from the opening bars of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet that here was a very different composer from Haydn, or indeed his eighteenth-century Scots counterparts. Lyricism of a quality it is difficult not to think divine — and why would one try? — is the order of the day, and so it sounded, Anthony Friend’s liquid tone just the tonic for cares we had (almost) left without the church. Distinction of method in so many ways was communicated with an effortlessness, however apparent, however illusory, that remains nonetheless crucial to so much Mozart. The development sounded every bit as exploratory as Haydn’s, the recapitulation both returning and venturing into new, Così-like territory. That sense was furthered in a reading of the Larghetto of rare hushed intimacy, clarinet first among equals — until another instrument was. The Minuet brought ebullient contrast that yet already hinted at a vulnerability, even anguish, given fuller voice in the first trio. The second trio’s serenading chimed with both tendencies. Both uniting and providing new points of departure, Mozart’s finale once again proved the very model of Classical variation writing, transformative in a fashion difficult not to consider operatic. For, in those most European of music, wistful and joyful, we both recognise ourselves and a world now sadly, even tragically, unattainable.

Hopes to attend the final two concerts in this series, scheduled for later this week, have now been dashed by the latest preposterous restrictions. Shops, gyms, even saunas remain open; a Christmas massacre looms; yet Covid-secure chamber concerts are once again forbidden. However, there is spotlighting at the end of the tunnel; Steven Isserlis and Angela Hewitt will reschedule their recitals. Perhaps it was too much to hope that my final concert music of 2020 would be Beethoven’s Opp.110 and 111. As I have recently written elsewhere, this virus-ridden world remains obstinately deaf to the music it most needs to hear. If anything can have us retain hope, it is the composer of the Ninth Symphony, with which I heard out 2019. Let us hope; let us pray.

Mark Berry

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