mon 22/07/2024

Castalian String Quartet, Wigmore Hall review - late Britten keeps equally demanding company | reviews, news & interviews

Castalian String Quartet, Wigmore Hall review - late Britten keeps equally demanding company

Castalian String Quartet, Wigmore Hall review - late Britten keeps equally demanding company

These brilliant young musicians transfigure everything they play

The Castalian String Quartet: Sini Simonen, Daniel Roberts, Ruth Gibson and Steffan MorrisPaul Marc Mitchell

Rigorous, hauntingly original and unlike each other, Britten’s three numbered quartets could share a programme and still stake equal claims on our attention. That might be tough on the players, but the Castalians haven’t been easy on themselves in the three concerts they’ve given to share out the honours between Britten and other composers.

Their previous spectacular pulled off the supreme challenge of twinning the “Grosse Fuge” as finale of Beethoven’s Op. 130 Quartet with the huge Chacony that crowns Britten’s Second. The Passacaglia of his Third, completed in 1975 not long before his death, could hardly be more different: a hypnotic, circling move towards eternity; but two of the symmetrically disposed five movements here have muscular demands, too, and though the company of Haydn and Dvořák might on paper have seemed to set the special demands of the Britten swansong in high relief, the Castalians served their equal originality with a discombobulating mix of searing freedom and muscular discipline.

In this interpretation, Haydn’s D major Quartet, Op. 20 No. 4, sounded as radical as the Britten - its surface charm never allowed to settle for long, its flashes of severity suggesting more a minor-key mode in the first movement. How deep the poco adagio felt, Steffan Morris’s golden cello solo in the second variation serving as the very heart of the work. Then there were elliptical quirkiness in the gaudy Menuetto and Haydn games of an oddly serious serious sort in the finale.

Britten in 1968Startling contrasts abound in Britten’s Third Quartet (the composer pictured right in 1968). You feel that the supernatural conversations of the opening “Duets” and the ferocities of the two scherzos – Britten surely took middle-period Bartók as a model – are scrims to the essence in the central “Solo”, great violinist Sini Simonen supreme in the unearthly soaring, and the final fantasia with “La Serenissima” as its aqueous theme: not just themes from the composer’s last opera, based on Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, but also the revolving figures of a Passacaglia so different from the 23 variations of the Second Quartet’s finale (Britten incorporated Venetian bells into his tapestry, but the essence is the lapping of the lagoon, also an inspiration for Wagner for the lovers’ “night of love” in Act 2 of Tristan und Isolde). In time the Castalians are bound to go even deeper in probing the mystery; but they certainly encouraged us to absorb what we could of the strangeness.

It might have come as a surprise to many to find more of it in Dvořák’s penultimate String Quartet, Op. 106 in G major. While most groups insist upon the ubiquitous but adorable “American” Quartet, the last two have greater riches to offer. The themes are singular, and variously embroidered, but it’s the progress that is so constantly surprising, especially in the Adagio’s seamless swinging between calm contemplation, severity and anguish, a very emotional vibrato applied at the start. This felt like a quartet of two halves, a bit like Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony in unleashing sheer joy in its scherzo and finale, but there are profound surprises in the Allegro con fuoco and the Castalians gav the seriousness as well as the raptures full value. Like the Pavel Haas Quartet, their full-blooded energy can seem almost over the top at times. Yet I can only echo Elgar when he wrote of his Violin Concerto "it's awfully emotional - too emotional! But I love it".

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