The Sacconi celebrate 20 years of music-making with a world premiere at Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Dove, Mendelssohn: Sacconi Quartet (Ben Hancox & Hannah Dawson [violins], Robin Ashwell [viola], Cara Berridge [cello]). Wigmore Hall, London, 20.11.2021. (CS)

Sacconi Quartet (c) Alejandro Tamagno

Mozart – String Quartet in E-flat K428
Jonathan DoveOn The Streets and In The Sky (world première)
Mendelssohn – String Quartet No.2 in A minor Op.13

It’s not always agreeable to be reminded of the passing of the years.  Surely it can’t be 20 years ago that the Sacconi Quartet, then recent graduates of the Royal College of Music, gave their first public performance?  Yet, when those years have been such a deeply gratifying musical journey bringing gratification, delight and discovery then they certainly should be celebrated, and this concert at Wigmore Hall was one of more than 20 international concerts that the Sacconi Quartet will give this season to mark their 20th anniversary – concerts in which they will look back on favourite works from their repertoire and forward, too, presenting a newly commissioned work by Jonathan Dove with whom they have formed a close collaborative relationship.

The 1990s must have been a good time to be teaching in a string faculty at one of the nation’s music conservatoires.  New ensembles that formed during that decade include the Belcea Quartet (1994), Carducci Quartet (1997) and Elias Quartet (1998).  During the last two decades, all have continued to inspire, explore and experiment.  The Sacconi’s projects have included Beethoven in the Dark –  which sees the ensemble perform Beethoven’s Op.131 from memory in the dark, the absence of light and stage apparatus distilling and tightening the unity of the sound – and, more recently, Heartfelt, which sees the Sacconi collaborate with robotics designers Rusty Squid and interactive light designer Ziggy Jacobs-Wyburn in immersive performances of Beethoven’s Op.132 that combine sound, light and touch and connect the audience with the performers’ heartbeat through light and haptic technology.  The Chamber Music Festival that they founded in Folkestone reached its 13th year in 2021, and they are now Quartet in Residence for the town and its surrounding areas, developing creative collaborations with local artists and an embedded outreach programme engaging with young string players in the town.

If each of the aforementioned chamber ensembles has its own distinctive ‘sound’, then perhaps the qualities that so often strike me as exceptional about the Sacconi’s playing are the finely blended sweetness of their tone and the intimate intensity that they create in performance.  Leader Ben Hancox is not an overly demonstrative player, but there is a deep focus and discipline about his stage presence, and it draws the four musicians together into an insoluble unity – such as was evident in the silent moments before they began to play the strange unison which begins the Allegro non troppo of Mozart’s String Quartet in E-flat K428 at Wigmore Hall, when the Sacconi Quartet sat on the platform, still, pensive, as if taking a simultaneous and synchronised deep breath of composure and preparation.

It is characteristic of the Sacconi’s programming that in choosing to frame the new with the ‘old’, they selected works from the core repertoire which are notable for their experimentation and daring engagement with established and evolving traditions.  For Mozart’s K428 challenges harmonic expectations in those opening bars, the quiet sparsity of the unison line unsettling the listener as it first defines the tonic and then disturbs it through chromatic meandering, the destination of which teases with its uncertainty.  The calm spaciousness of the Sacconi’s playing drew one into their confidence.  The dynamic was muted, the broad scope invigored from within by Hannah Dawson’s quiet, taut flickering motifs.  This was not, as with Haydn (to whom the quartet, one of a set of six, was dedicated), about motivic fragmentation, transformation and reformation; instead, the music seemed driven by colour and mood, the themes not so much broken up and developed as explored in new settings, against new backdrops.  Subtle, restrained vibrato made the colours clearer, more defined.  And, the final cadence seemed somewhat arbitrary, as if there need be no end to such explorations.

At the start of the Andante con moto, above the cello’s steadily rolling triplet-quavers, the syncopated unwinding of the upper strings extended lines was soft, grainy and dense, like a slow expiration from a squeeze box, contained but purposeful.  The tempo was quite slow, but the structure was clearly crafted, Cara Berridge’s dignified bass line providing direction.  Interrupted cadences brought about reflection – a sudden pianissimo, perhaps, and then calm resumption and growth.  The rising melodic figure – a pure fifth followed by a relaxed descent – tempered the ambiguity with serenity, particularly in the soaring climax of the first violin’s final phrase.

The Menuetto sees Mozart at his most Haydnesque and the Sacconi’s playing here was springy and direct, the rhythmic displacements and accents playful yet disciplined, the contrasting dynamics energising.  The long cello pedals and minor key of the Trio added a speculative note, but it was lightly brushed away by the gallant repetition of the minuet.  And, with the Allegro vivace came release, Hancox’s semiquavers easefully bursting from the snatched gesture which kicks off the rondo theme.  The Sacconi’s ability to play quietly while never letting the tension or momentum dissipate made the music feel refreshing and free.

The Sacconi were similarly bold in Mendelssohn’s Op.13, a work which they recorded in 2017 alongside the quartet which inspired it, Beethoven’s String Quartet No.15 Op.132, which was composed two years before in the same A minor key.  Here, however, the restraint sometimes seemed to inhibit the natural symphonic breadth of the music.  The tuning and phrasing took a little time to settle in the introductory Adagio.  The mood was gently quizzical, not quite preparing one for the urgent restlessness of the Allegro which nevertheless did unfold with ardour and energy, culminating in a coda of fire and fury.  The Adagio non lento had a consoling hymn-like quality, but I feel that the cantabile theme needs more warmth and fullness than the Sacconi offered.  The imitative entries were shaped with a lovely expressive freedom, though, and the individuality with which the players shaped their phrases brought quiet but compelling vigour to the conversation.  It was a pity that Hancox’s beautiful melodising was marred by an outburst of bronchial agitation from the rear of the Hall, but a Mendelssohnian refinement was restored in the reprise of the main theme.

Hancox’s melody in the Intermezzo was the epitome of Classical poise, though the pizzicato support felt a little dry and I’d have like a touch more ‘coyness’ – some hint of the elfin mischief that’s about to break out in the Allegro di molto (which wasn’t really ‘di molto’ here, but was neat and well-articulated).  The transition back to the theme was expertly controlled, however, and now the countermelodies in the inner voices provided welcome depth.  If Mendelssohn seemed not quite to have tapped into a ‘Sturm and Drang’ vibe thus far, then the barrage of tremolando that shook Wigmore Hall at the start of the Presto confirmed that the composer does have his moments of Beethovian passion!  Hancox’s ad libitum rhetoric stirred up the agitation and the movement bristled with drama, the emotional range now extended and culminating with the first violin’s solo improvisatory yearning.  The closing recall of the first movement’s Adagio preface was delicate but true: serenity restored.

The Sacconi’s discography includes several premiere recordings of works by contemporary composers including Roxanna Panufnik, Graham Fitkin, John McCabe and Jonathan Dove.  From the latter the Quartet commissioned In Damascus, a song-cycle for string quartet and tenor, and their 2017 recording – which also included Dove’s piano quintet and Out of Time for String Quartet – was chosen as one of Gramophone Magazine’s Recordings of the Year.  I admired the group’s performance of Dove’s six-movement Out of Time at Wigmore Hall in 2018, and in this recital it was their world premiere of a new Dove commission, On The Streets and In The Sky, that saw the Sacconi reach remarkable expressive heights.

Dove explains that this anniversary commission was inspired by his experience of lockdown in London in 2020: ‘Days were filled with anxiety: ordinary daily chores such as a trip to the shops could be deadly.  Yet at the same time, without traffic pollution or aeroplanes, the sky over London seemed exceptionally clear and blue.  The birds seemed to sing more loudly … [and] contrasted strangely with the uneasiness of life on the ground.’

The first movement, ‘Driving’, certainly has a nervy edge.  The Sacconi’s bows tapped, snatched and grated against strings creating a tense rhythmic counterpoint of urban sounds; a high cello melody pushed through the texture; interjections from the inner voices created fierce disturbances.  The soundscape was built from juxtapositions, feather-light pianissimo spiccato contrasting with bell-like layerings, before the sounds disintegrated warily at the close.  The pentatonic melody of a bird that Dove repeatedly heard, hidden in a tree, outside his home inspired the second movement, titled simply, ‘Lively’.  Hancox’s stratospheric flutterings and chirrups were joined by quivering oscillations; a lovely relaxed cello melody evoked nature’s untroubled freedom; high harmonics rang pure and clear against warmly blended lower strings.

It was, however, the final movement, ‘Very gently moving’, which was most enchanting, mesmerising even.  Barely there whispers slowly, imperceptibly, tenderly redispersed themselves, the harmonies shifting ever so slightly but inexorably – like wisps of cirrus across an azure sky.  There were occasional swellings of energy from within, though the dynamic surely never rose above pianissimo.  It takes tremendous technical skill and artistry to control the bow and tone with such subtlety.

In 2018, the Sacconi’s performance of the final movement of Out of Time offered what I described as ‘the quiet consolations of elegy’ as ‘gentle, unaffected melodism diffused into spatial expanse … opening up a vista whose static purity evoked the pure abstraction required by Sophocles in the divine choric laments of classical Greek drama’.  Here, it was not abstraction so much that was evoked, but a clear vision of a sky which, together with the bird, offers, Dove suggests, ‘glimpses of a better world’.   As the music lifted our figurative gaze ever higher, here surely was Shelley’s skylark, ‘That from Heaven, or near it,/ Pourest thy full heart/ In profuse strains of unpremeditated art’:

The blue deep thou wingest,
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.

Claire Seymour

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