BBC Proms at Cadogan Hall – Marmen Quartet play Haydn & Robert Simpson

Marmen-Quartet

Marmen Quartet [Johannes Marmén & Ricky Gore (violins), Bryony Gibson-Cornish (viola), Sinéad O’Halloran (cello)]

Haydn String Quartet in D major Op.64/5 ‘Lark’ (1790)
Simpson String Quartet no.1 (1951-2)

Cadogan Hall, London
Monday 16 August 2021 (1pm)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

In his centenary, it was timely to include music by Robert Simpson (who spent three eventful decades at the BBC) at the Proms, and while one might have hoped for one of his symphonies in the evening concerts, his First Quartet at a Cadogan Hall recital was hardly less welcome.

Finished when Simpson was in his early thirties and dedicated to Enescu (who read through and commended the score during his last visit to the UK), the First Quartet fairly typifies the composer’s music at this time in its stealthy take on progressive tonality and methodical yet never pre-ordained design. Thus, the opening Allegro evolves seamlessly from wistful then animated main ideas through an inwardly probing development to a trenchant reprise then a headlong coda; the ensuing Andante unfolding a series of variations on a ruminative theme – structured as a palindrome – that grows in intensity towards a fervent culmination before it touches on the work’s opening theme on route to a limpid final repose. Simpson was to use   a two-movement format on subsequent occasions, but never so elegantly or lucidly as here.

In his introductory remarks, Johannes Marmén stated that the Marmen Quartet had not been familiar with Simpson’s music until asked to learn the First Quartet for this recital. Evidently played-in beforehand, this afternoon’s performance was impressive in its formal command and audible feel for a distinctive idiom of far-reaching consequences. Hopefully this group will tackle further Simpson – the Second and Third Quartets, which explore the potential of their predecessor in what effectively becomes a ‘meta-quartet’, are a good place to continue.

A passing allusion to Haydn’s Lark Quartet at the start of the Simpson made the former a natural pairing, of which the Marmen made a virtue with its attentive and insightful account. After an animated reading of the initial Allegro (second half repeat included to make it weightier), the Adagio was notable for its eloquent ensemble and a tentative wit made manifest in the lively Menuetto. Sparkling yet never skittish, the final Vivace rounded off this performance in appealing fashion – leaving little doubt of the Marmen Quartet as an outfit with a future.

You can find more information on the BBC Proms at the festival’s homepage