Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Awake receives its London premiere by the Castalian Quartet

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Janáček, Turnage, Bartók: Castalian String Quartet (Sini Simonen & Daniel Roberts [violin], Edgar Francis [viola], Steffan Morris [cello]).  Wigmore Hall, London, 16.1.2024. (CS)

Castalian Quartet (c) Paul Marc Mitchell

Leoš Janáček – String Quartet No. 1, ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’
Mark-Anthony TurnageAwake (2021, London premiere)
Béla Bartók – String Quartet No. 5 BB110

His name might have been absent from the list of works performed in this recital at Wigmore Hall by the Castalian Quartet (with Edgar Francis replacing Ruth Gibson), but Beethoven was the linchpin of the programme, and specifically his Kreutzer Sonata Op. 47 which was premiered (accompanied by the composer) in Vienna in 1803 by the mulatto violinist, George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower (1778-1860), to whom the work (then known as the Sonata Mulattica) was originally dedicated.  Bridgetower was the son of an Afro-Caribbean servant, John Bridgetower, who served as a page to Prince Nicolaus Esterházy during the 1780s, and a white European mother said to be of Polish extraction.  He enjoyed a close friendship with Beethoven, but – perhaps following a dispute about a woman, or more likely because Beethoven was keen to make important connections among the Parisian musical elite – the composer eventually renamed and rededicated the sonata to the French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer (who, ironically, didn’t like the work and refused to play it).

Herself a talented cellist, the former US Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner, Rita Dove, based her collection, Sonata Mulaticca, on Bridgetower’s life, and her poems have inspired Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Awake – a two-movement work for string quartet which was commissioned by the Castalian Quartet to mark the 100th anniversary of the composition of Leoš Janáček’s first string quartet, known as the ‘Kreutzer Sonata’, which references the eponymous novella (1889) by Leo Tolstoy in which a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Violin Sonata triggers psychological and emotional disturbance and a tragic, violent sequence of events.

Awake, which was premiered by the Castalian at the Edinburgh International Festival in August 2023, does not directly reference either Beethoven or Janáček but the titles of its two movements, ‘Bridgewater 23’ and ‘Shut out’, convey a narrative quality and political undertones.  The former begins with double stops for the first violin, though of a more subdued tone than the bravura that opens Beethoven’s sonata, leading to lower string ‘nudges’ above which an elegant violin solo unfolds in a muted, questing fashion.  There was much of beauty here, from Sini Simonen’s sweet tone to the delicacy of the spread cello chords which support the melody.  The four string voices seemed very individualised as they developed the increasingly stirring motifs, and energy accrued as a syncopated rhythm played by the pizzicato cello created forward momentum above which rich conversations took place.  The textures remained airy, though, and eventually the dialogues faded to a whisper, and then niente.  In ‘Shut Out’, the four strings came together in more assertive ways but despite the insistent rhythmic motifs that welled up and intruded, the prevailing mood was one of contemplation, quiet harmonics and delicate colours bringing the work to rest, the final chord ambiguous harmonically and in spirit.

The Castalian Quartet preceded Awake with the First String Quartet by Janáček, the anniversary of which it marks.  The opening had a markedly veiled quality, the textures seemingly even more fraught than is often the case, and the cello’s motif lightly articulated.  Restlessness and fragmentation prevailed through the movement, with a strong sense of ‘narrative’ conveyed.  Individual motifs seemed always pressing forwards and if there was an absence of tonal richness then this was compensated for my moments if delicacy such as the questioning placement of the final bars.  The attention to detail and fine definition of timbre were impressive in the ensuing Con moto, though again I think I prefer the fuller colours of the Takács and Wihan Quartets, and the passionate lyric intensity that the Pavel Haas Quartet bring to the work.  The quiet yearning of the overlapping lines of the first violin and cello at the start of the third movement was beautiful, though, and the restrained tempo made for even more marked contrasts when the sul ponticello interruptions burst dramatically into the reflections.  Simonen led the ensemble purposefully through the growing tension and violence of the movement, making Janáček’s increasingly angular and jagged utterances powerfully eloquent.  The reprise of the opening Adagio at the start of the Finale was distant and cool, while the subsequent moments of melodic lyricism conveyed an apt melancholy.

When they premiered Turnage’s Awake in Edinburgh, the Castalian Quartet ended their recital with Beethoven’s Quartet in B flat Op. 130, and its original Grosse Fuge finale.  Here, those chose Béla Bartók’s Fifth Quartet and relished its rich thematic diversity, contrapuntal freedom and folk influences: they created a true sense of coherence as the variety of material expanded and developed across the five moments, which are palindromic, while retaining the individuality of particular motifs.  There was breadth at the opening of the Allegro, which was countered by the denseness and drive of the gritty unisons, the repetitions of the latter creating a strong ‘centre’ as the material unfolded canonically.  Details such as vivid up-bow repetitions swept the listener into the rhetorical bite of the movement.  The Adagio molto had a similarly persuasive focus, the cello’s calm foundations supporting sustained lyrical intensity, as the scalic motifs and open fifth pedals created a chorale-like ambience at times.  The ‘lopsidedness’ of the Scherzo’s Bulgarian-inspired rhythms was buoyantly playful, the diversity of the material both clearly delineated and sometimes overwhelmingly assertive.  The Andante brought quasi-pointillistic precision and glimmers, grainy lower lines serving as a bed for the ongoing development of motifs introduced in the second movement.  The precision and dynamism – and the folky sweep and stamp – of the Finale was hypnotic.  Bartók may be continuing his experimentation with symmetries, palindromes and motivic cells in this Fifth Quartet, but the Castalian communicated its very human concerns and energies.

Claire Seymour

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