Concert Review

String Quartets in London from home and abroad: The Schidlof, Wihan, Petersburg and Brodsky String Quartets, March 2000.

The Schidlof Quartet's reputation ensured a full house at Blackheath on 5th March, but 11. 30 on a Sunday morning is not the easiest time to produce your best. Mozart's K575 was a little lack-lustre, and no match for the Belcea's performance of that same D major masterpiece at Wigmore Hall shortly before. As with a city's great orchestras there are ups and downs, and it is hard to maintain supremacy in what is now an increasingly competitive field, with many excellent string quartets nation- and world-wide. The Schidlofs gave a sound account of Beethoven op 59/3, no more, and their most impressive item was the almost unrelievedly gloomy No 11 of Shostakovich, not quite the thing before Sunday dinner?

Later that day, the Czech Wihan Quartet came to Conway Hall for the 2947th South Place Sunday concert, this series now in its 109th season, the 'mother' of all the local chamber music societies and a remarkable story in London's musical life. It would be interesting to hear from readers abroad whether this illustrious record can be capped? Early evening, 6.30, is a good time for chamber music, leaving you not too tired to go out to supper afterwards. The Wihans began with Beethoven Op 18/1; perfect intonation, brilliant tone & immaculate ensemble - but to my ears just a little too regimented, as if it would sound exactly the same if they played it next week, all ready for making a CD.

The hall was decently, though not totally, full - probably because the quartet's name (and Martinu's quartets) are not so well known. Martinu's no 2 was vivacious and sent us down for the tea/coffee break in a contented mood. Afterwards, the Wihans were joined by James Boyd (viola) for Dvorak's gorgeous String Quintet Op 97, much better known than its numerical near neighbour, which is now always billed as the American Quartet - it had quite a different name in the South Place concerts' earlier times, and in mine!

Artists often relax after the interval, and Dvorak encourages this with his fount of wonderful, singable tunes with rich harmonies. The cunningly varied pairings of the players are enhanced by Seeing as well as Hearing and this made for heart-warming chamber music playing, received with a vociferous ovation.

Before the concert, Lionel Elton, music director of the London Chamber Music Society, had castigated the audience from the stage because not every seat was taken for 'probably the best string quartet in the world'. His weekly pep talks, seasoned in his irrepressible enthusiasm with a little hyperbole, have become a South Place tradition, attracting friendly mirth from the regulars. The Wihan Quartet's performance of Dvorak had made that claim sound not too implausible.

He urged us also to ensure a proper reception for the Petersburg Quartet on 12 March, and there was indeed a good turn-out for these Russian visitors. However, they disappointed a little, possibly because of tiredness from a heavy schedule (they had played a sold-out Wigmore Hall coffee concert that same morning!). The Haydn opener was beset with intonation problems, the Shostakovich No. 11 was well played, but no less dispiriting than at Blackheath last month, and Tchaikowsky's 2nd quartet received a workmanlike performance that did not raise the spirits either.

Before that, there had been two opportunities to hear another ever popular Brodsky String Quartet, who go in for not too flamboyant designer costume, and play standing up, which improves visibility and enhances audience rapport. On 5 March, they had introduced Elena Firsova's most recent quartet at the Royal Academy of Music in a marathon three-hour afternoon concert - S&H, having its own marathon that day, was there to hear it. Firsova's 10th Quartet La Malinconia took Op 18/6 (inscribed by Beethoven La Malinconia) as a starting point, its basic material generated by three grace notes in the latter, with a short quotation from the original in her coda. It is intense, very beautiful and shares the melancholy of Beethoven's second adagio.

This quartet was scheduled to be repeated in the third of the Brodsky Quartet's ambitious millennial series at Cabot Hall, Canary Wharf, with six new commissioned quartets planned to reflect upon Beethoven's pivotal Op 18, 200 years on. I heard two of these on 8 March, a light, American-tinged Opus California by Sally Beamish, who had responded to the warmth of Californian audiences, and a surprising quartet by Karen Tanaka, At the grave of Beethoven, based upon the beginning of Beethoven's Op 18/3. Its idiom was close to that of later Beethoven and the second movement, a chain of tonal modulations, was deeply moving despite horrendous intrusive noise which wrecked the quiet, contemplative music and its pianissimo ending.

There was the rub, in consequence of which Seen&Heard did not cover the remaining concerts of the enterprising Brodsky project, which included new quartets by Tunde Jegede, Javier Alvarez and Elena Firsova's composer husband, Dimitri Smirnov, and had attracted large audiences to the Isle of Dogs, London's wealthy business centre, which however is still poorly supplied for cultural nourishment.

The impressive, lofty Cabot Hall can be fine acoustically for chamber music, especially near the front, but can be spoilt by intrusive noise and, at other times, by insensitive and gratuitous amplification. I was assured that on this occasion the air conditioning had been switched off (I had regularly had to plead for this to be done in the past). I complained; so did others in the audience. The leader of the quartet did so from the platform, all to no avail. I think this frustration made the performances of Op 18/1 & 18/4 a little lack-lustre, and because the staff were unable to trace and stop the noise (possibly from Tesco's above, they thought, alternatively from the car park below) I did not return for the other days. I will however, in the near future, endeavour to review for MotW (with a link to S&H) the Brodsky Quartet's new Channel Classics CDs of the Op 18 quartets, and another of Dmitri Smirnov's 6th and Elena Firsova's 10th.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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