String quartet festival shows British talent

International concert at Greenwich features music colleges, London Symphony Orchestra perform Bartok and premiere Tan Dun

Making my way through Saturday-night London to boisterous Greenwich, for a concert at the Old Royal Naval College Chapel, I couldn’t help surmising the supreme irrelevance, for the overwhelming majority of the visible population, of an evening spent listening to string quartets. Not just an evening but, indeed, a weekend of them, for this was the Greenwich International String Quartet Festival: 11 concerts, four masterclasses and two competitions, with the participation of 10 professional quartets, including the Wihan Quartet, from Prague.

That connection was the festival’s main justification for its title. It was not hugely international, only a bit, but it gave a good impression of the range of British ensembles; and the Cavatina intercollegiate competition, among whose adjudicators was Martin Lovett, cellist of the Amadeus Quartet, represented talent in no fewer than eight British music colleges. Marginal though chamber music may seem to many, at the Old Royal Naval College, and specifically Trinity College of Music, which is housed there (it must have the handsomest precincts of any music college), it was a matter of vital concern.

It is, I would say, an exemplary human activity, because it exercises in the most strenuously satisfying way our capacity to follow a discourse, a chain of ideas several of which are typically present at once. Only really in music can simultaneous skeins of thought be intelligibly unfolded in time, and the resultant challenge to our listening ability has perhaps a moral as well as an aesthetic dimension. It was Elias Canetti who spoke of “the moralist’s organ, the ear”; and in trying to follow the sonata first movement of Dvorak’s String Quartet No 9 in D minor, which opened the Wihan’s beautifully accomplished recital, I had again that feeling of one’s whole self being put into a state of attentiveness, as though one were never more oneself than at such moments.

Not that visual stimulus wasn’t a factor. The pale-gold evening light penetrating windows that were yellow-lit from below, and Wren’s magnificent chapel, with its intricate plasterwork and blue background that are like Wedgwood pottery flattened out, not to mention the enormous Benjamin West altarpiece framed in Byzantine gold, were multiple delights.

Listening in this serene ambience to the Dvorak, then to Smetana’s E minor Quartet No 1 and Brahms’s A minor Quartet No 2 — works from the 1870s, worlds away — seemed the most important thing in the world for the time being, and was, for me, more rewarding and relevant than the contemporary concert given there next evening by the Smith Quartet. The playing was no less impressive, but the works, mostly minimalist, had downgraded “discourse”, with its engagement of the listener’s full capacity, to gesture and stark juxtaposition, with their principal appeal to the solar plexus. Even so, there was charm and originality to Kevin Volans’s White Man Sleeps, and Andrew Poppy’s brief, brisk Hatch fetchingly combined harmonic iridescence with rhythmic incisiveness.

The distinction between discourse and gesture was drawn again by two London Symphony Orchestra concerts at the Barbican. Part of a subseries called UBS Soundscapes: Lang Lang, they involved the young Chinese pianist in Bartok’s Second Concerto and the British premiere of Tan Dun’s piano concerto The Fire, which was conducted by the composer, along with his five-minute “internet symphony” Eroica, specially written for an orchestra convened by YouTube, and recently premiered at Carnegie Hall.

Daniel Harding conducted the Bartok — a vigorous account marked by overemphasis from the soloist at every opportunity — and symphonies by Bruckner and Mahler. There was a touch of youthful excess to his reading of Bruckner’s Fifth: it was absurd, in a work built on massive airy spaces, to drive the adagio into the scherzo without a break. But the realisation of this mightily original and complex discourse had a triumphant grandeur just the same. As for the Dun works, with their egregious bashing and smashing, and queasy disjunction of styles, they left me not only feeling that there are some composers who should never be let near a symphony orchestra, but temporarily finding the whole art of music perfectly immoral.

Paul Driver, Sunday Times, April 26 2009

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