Wigmore Mondays – Apollon Musagète Quartet play Haydn & Arensky

Apollon Musagète Quartet [Paweł Zalejski & Bartosz Zachłod (violins), Piotr Szumieł (viola), Piotr Skweres (cello)

Haydn String Quartet in D major Op.64/5 Lark (1790)

Arensky String Quartet in A minor Op.35 (1894)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 3 April, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

If you want a piece of chamber music for a bright spring day, look no further than Haydn’s utterly charming Lark quartet. The fifth in a set of six written for Johann Tost, a violin player from Haydn’s court orchestra, the ‘Lark’ is bright and very breezy. The first violin takes on the role of the bird, soaring above the other three instruments in the first movement () and then enjoying the role of a vocal soloist in the second movement (10:55), essentially an aria.

In this performance the Apollon Musagète Quartet allowed Haydn’s melodies all the room they needed, except for the end of the first movement which became a bit too fast. In the third movement Minuet – a predecessor of Beethoven’s scherzo (16:14) they dug in a little more. For the last movement, a brilliantly played torrent of notes issued forth from Paweł Zalejski’s violin, rushing the whole way through as the other instruments battled manfully to keep up.

The sudden change of mood for Arensky’s String Quartet no.2 was palpable. Arensky was a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov and a close friend of Tchaikovsky, and although his music has never enjoyed the popularity of these two Russian heavyweights, at its best it has great appeal. Rimsky wrote him off as a composer, but this String Quartet is one of his finest works. A darker piece, it was originally written for violin, viola and two cellos, but in this performance the Apollon Musagete used the conventional quartet make-up.

The first movement was dark, its solemn intonations speaking of Russian liturgy rather than intimate chamber music, serving as a memorial for Tchaikovsky. The quartet captured its brooding thoughts (23:13) but allowed more light to seep into the outlook as the piece progressed.

The second movement (34:03), a set of variations on Tchaikovsky’s Legend, is often played separately in an arrangement for string orchestra, and the Apollon Musagète showed how these big, bold variations could easily be projected for the bigger form. They demonstrated great aptitude for the quick fire variations (36:23) and (close to 39:24) but showed the slow theme and its other slower, minor key counterparts plenty of time, especially in the final variation from 46:25. The music may have been downbeat on these occasions but still had the power to console.

The finale is a strange comparison of dark liturgical intonation (48:01) and a sudden burst of folk song (49:30), which eventually wins the day. When it did here at the Wigmore, the effect was thoroughly convincing and consolation had ultimately been found in this fine performance.

Further listening

In summing up Arensky’s best achievements as a composer the Wigmore Hall note omitted to mention his wonderful Piano Trio no.1, part of a Spotify playlist including piano music and the Quartet played here.

Proms premiere – Colin Matthews: String Quartet no.5


String Quartet no.5 by Colin Matthews

Apollon Musagète Quartet (Paweł Zalejski & Bartosz Zachłod (violins), Piotr Szumieł (viola) & Piotr Skweres (cello)) (Proms Chamber Music 3)

Duration: 12 minutes

BBC iPlayer link

http://www.bbc.co.uk/events/ecq5v2#b06402nt (Matthews begins talking at 13:19, then the piece at 15:34 and ends at 27:36)

What’s the story behind the piece?

In conversation with Petroc Trelawny before the performance, Matthews reveals that his string quartet rate of composition has been approximately one every ten years, but that the gap is now narrowing.

This work was written for the 75th anniversary of the Tanglewood Festival and is conceived in a single movement. “I wanted to do something very different from the others”, he says, and the silences are a starting point. “The work begins very hesitantly”, he explains, and works up to only one big climax.

Did you know?

Colin Matthews worked as Britten’s assistant in the last few years of his life, and was essentially his right hand man for proof reading and even composition. You can read an interview about his exploits here

Initial verdict

It is possible to detect the hand of a mature composer at work here. So many new pieces rely on shock tactics and volume to make themselves heard, but Colin Matthews shuns all of that with an economic approach that actually brings forward greater emotion.

The faltering start from the quartet, together, becomes a distinctive motif that runs through the piece, and although the music does indeed build and get to a more secure footing, it never fully shakes off the uneasy start from the muted quartet. It is at times reminiscent of a Bartók quartet slow movement, or even Britten, in the intensity of its expression, though it never fully sounds like those composers. The Fifth Quartet says a lot in a relatively short duration, convincing in spite of its emotional doubt, as it retreats into the shadows at the end.

Second hearing


Where can I hear more?

Colin has a BBC page devoted to him here