Discerning playing by the Sacconi Quartet at Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Purcell, Haydn, Ravel: Sacconi Quartet (Ben Hancox [violin], Hannah Dawson [violin], Robin Ashwell [viola], Cara Berridge [cello]), Wigmore Hall, London, 22.7. 2021. (CS)

Sacconi Quartet (Ben Hancox, Robin Ashwell, Hannah Dawson, Cara Berridge) (c) Alejandro Tamagno

Purcell – Fantasia a 4 No.6 in F Z737, Chacony in G minor Z730, Fantasia a 4 No.11 in G Z742
Haydn – String Quartet in C Op.54 No.2
Ravel – String Quartet in F

What connects Purcell with Ravel?  That was the teaser that the Sacconi Quartet posed for the audience at Wigmore Hall.  Even with Haydn as the deluxe sandwich-filler, it’s a challenge to discern a dialogue between Purcell’s fantasias for viols – which date from the summer of 1680 when the composer was not yet twenty-one, and which look backwards to a then unfashionable form (at court, at least) brought to a height in the 1650s by John Locke – and Ravel’s quasi-surreal, gamelan- and jazz-inspired Quartet, composed in 1903 when the composer was twenty-eight.  My first thought was that Britten’s quartets might have been a more instinctive choice to partner Purcell, but the invitation to be enlightened was a tempting one.

The last time I heard the Sacconi perform at Wigmore Hall, I had my headphones on and my eyes firmly fixed on my laptop.  How lovely to nestle into Wigmore Hall’s comfortable red seats and to hear the musicians perform live.  Their approach to Purcell – two Fantasias and the G Minor Chacony – was sober and probing: there was a sense that profound interpretative preparation and reflection had been undertaken, and that, with the heavy work despatched, the music could now be freed to speak with directness and potency.

The Sacconi created a vivid but very focused ‘antique’ sound – a little grainy, no vibrato, stirring movement in the inner voices.  From the opening of the Fantasia a 4 No.6 in F the false relations and strange chromatic turns and slips startled, unpredictable and daring.  There was rhythmic vigour, but a prevailing legato; no unseemly accents or exaggerated dotted groups, an elegant not aggressive inégal.  The texture was lucid but beautifully blended – I was touched by the tenderness with which each player phrased their part – and all the voices remained clear as they mounted up.  Cara Berridge’s sure bass line was a stabilising force in the more roving episodes, but also when the voices came together homophonically, squeezing through the chromatic progressions with slow deliberation.  At times, a slight drag spoke of unease, only for the taut, wheezy organ to relax and open into fresh air and light.

A swift tempo for the Chacony, and dotted rhythms which again were taut but not overly accented, made this music sound new, modern.  Musical conversations – as pairs of voices came together, departed, reformed and re-joined – were like a quadrille.  The Fantasia a 4 No.11 in G was airy, not less capricious but a little more spacious, and concluded in sprightly fashion though the Sacconi Quartet sustained the essential gravity of the music to the close.  Though, by turns, doleful and restless, Purcell’s music no longer seemed ‘archaic’, or backward looking, but quirkily, creatively original – just as Britten had perceived.

Haydn was similarly boundary-pushing in his three Op.54 quartets, of which the Sacconi performed the second which is notable for, among other aspects, the unusual Adagio­-Presto-Adagio structure of the final movement.  The opening Vivace, too, has a slow ‘introduction’, turned by the Sacconi into a stately but gracious salutation, which contrasted with the succeeding, more nimble material.  The Sacconi retained the ‘polite’ tone in the exposition, though the motifs were not lacking in bite and in the development there was a sense of busy evolution and exchange, with energy driving from the inner voices and textures clear.  The music’s rhetoric was persuasively communicated, as what appeared recapitulations turned out to be further development, the keys ever more exploratory, the invention irrepressible.  The Sacconi injected a darker, more hesitant note, though the sunny plains of resolution – the assurance of the Enlightenment – never seemed far away.

The Adagio seemed to cast an eye back to Purcell’s slow harmonic drawings-out.  The Sacconi were sparing with their vibrato in the opening phrase.  and the cello again both underpinned and drove the harmonic progress.  In contrast, perched above the ensemble’s quiet but sure chords, the first violin’s subsequent ornamental arabesque took on a fantasia-like air, delicate and free – looking forward, perhaps, to Beethoven’s great slow movements.

The Menuetto was a full-bodied dance – the sort which Jane Austen’s characters would have relished – yet here too there was adventurousness and risk, as when Hancox’s preparatory chromatic quaver rises before the cadences initiated a full-scale ascent drawing all four players into a powerful unison scalic climax, spanning several octaves.  The Sacconi suggested the music’s stubborn refusal to be contained and gleeful delight in its freedom of expression.  Similarly, in the Trio there was a striking contrast between the strong tone of the unison phrases and the intervening introspection, even tentativeness, of subdued and searching harmonies.  The final movement brought a return to reserved elegance, before a skittish Presto intervened – the staccato up-bows flying fleetly, lightly brushing strings, and dynamics starkly juxtaposed, creating a nervous mood.  The interruption was brief, however, and finely integrated, and the closing Adagio brought the four independent lines surely together as one ‘voice’.

And so on to Ravel, the first movement of which seemed to arise from and represent natural forces, the initial motifs of the Allegro moderato. Très doux emerging as if nudged gently by wind and waves, before the currents whipped up in momentary skurries.  This was lovely, refreshing playing – the warm tone was somehow balanced by a cool presence – the voices beautifully blended.  Perhaps there might have been more melodic definition in the opening bars, where blended textures sometimes seemed prioritised over song, but this is a very minor quibble, and the balance of precision and tidiness with an inner, elemental energy was more than recompense.  Hannah Dawson shaped the transition to the second subject exquisitely (and, if anything, her discerningly shaped repetitions, and gentle give and take, were even finer the second time round), and I loved Berridge’s pianissimo fifths which were like sighs of fulfilment between Hancox’s and Ashwell’s entrancing unison melody.  Magical textures, and some surging outbursts of passion, in the development were followed by a cleansing of the air in the recapitulation.  The pianissimos were even more extreme here, and the final pizzicato rise vanished, quizzically, like a genie, into the ether.

The tempo of the Assez vif. Très rythmé was judicious – swift but not too fast, allowing for a controlled balancing of melody and rhythm, pizzicato and arco.  The twos-against-threes tugged sensuously; the muted section, approached by a wonderfully tapered diminuendo, was perfumed with a lazy exoticism which found a beguiling lilt; the intruding pizzicato reminders garnered excitement and proved impossible to resist.  Ashwell and Berridge were eloquent ‘folk-singers’ in the Très lent, which retained an apt distance, as if the music was flowing from hills far away, carried on the wind across the valleys.  Once again, the integration of impassioned outbursts of enormous textual complexity and ethereal stillness was impressive.  Fearsome gales blew up and subsided with equal alacrity.  The profundity and coherence of voices at the close was indeed quasi-Purcellian.   Vif et agité was notable for an almost violent energy at times – perhaps the only time in the concert that such force was set free – but there was no loss of control: the 5/8 rhythms felt natural, with no undue emphases.  Once again, Berridge seemed to me to make an invaluable contribution to the coherence of the whole, and the rich sonority of the close was deeply satisfying.

Reflecting on the programme, it seemed to me that the three works performed have a tendency to slip in and out of their ‘age’ – a quality expertly communicated by the Sacconi Quartet: to look both backwards and forwards, and to balance elegance and refinement with an intimation of storms that lay ahead.  Such storms are quickly quelled, but it struck me that perhaps it is no coincidence that each work was composed on the cusp of ‘revolution’.

Claire Seymour

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