Music: Dante Quartet, King's College
Aaron Watts is blown away by the most accomplished Cambridge performance he's seen to date
by Aaron Watts
Wednesday 23rd May 2012, 23:40 BST
Beethoven - String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131 (1826)
Schubert - String Quartet in G, D. 887 (1826)
Krysia Osostowicz (violin)
Giles Francis (violin)
Rachel Roberts (viola)
Bernard Gregor-Smith (cello)
This was a thrilling tour de force that paired two of the most monumental works in quartet repertoire: Schubert's D.887 in G-major and Beethoven's Op. 131 in C-sharp minor (both 1826). The Dante Quartet, celebrating its fifth year in residence at King's College, rose to the immense technical and intellectual challenges of the works with daring conviction and bold interpretive vision.
Carl Dahlhaus, in his notorious 1978 clarion call for a redefinition of sonata form, acknowledged Schubert's distinctive 'lyric-epic' formal dynamic. The Dante's reading was beautifully poised between both tendencies, dismembering complacent notions of Biedermeier drab. The first movement, Allegro molto moderato, with its melodic lines set against shimmering tremolos, maintained a constant threat of fragmentation; the variation cycles that make up its thematic groupings maintained a ubiquitous quality of reminiscence.
The cello's e-minor theme in the Andante un poco moto that followed gave way to an abrupt, angry g-minor passage of unison octaves, unapologetically anguished. More daring still, the briskly-despatched scherzo of the third movement framed an ostensibly gemütlich trio; as in Der Lindenbaum, dance and lullaby fused into one, underwritten by the somniferous tones of the cellist (Bernard Gregor-Smith), who was on splendid form throughout, celebrating his retirement from the ensemble.
The Allegro assai, a sprawling finale, had a devilishly inane spirit. Hurtling and rapid, every accent stung, though perhaps at the expense of dynamic detail. This interpretation underscored Schubert's obsession with repeated figurations, which were coherently articulated by all four players. In the middle of the movement, just after the beginning of what might be termed its 'recapitulation' (I can make head nor tail of its formal outline), the strange c-sharp minor sostenuto passage conjured a dreamlike vision. It might have drawn back a little more, though, to allow complete engulfment by recollection. Nonetheless, this was a bewildering, fantastical excursion that looked forward, far beyond Bruckner, to Ligeti's postwar innovations with the form.
Dahlhaus's Schubert conjecture was set out in opposition to Beethoven's 'dramatic-dialectic' idiom. The demerits of this approach aside, the Dante's reading of the op. 131 quartet certainly inhabited a distinct, grandly expressive arena. Though formally a seven-movement work (Beethoven had questioned conventional designs since at least the Op. 27 piano sonatas of 1801), the work has essentially four movements, introduced by a masterful fugue and tied together by recitative formulas borrowed from the manuals of Italian opera.
The opening Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo was magnificently hushed and each voice pursued its line in a rich solemnity that never muddied. The violist (Rachel Roberts) deserves particular mention; Lawrence Power is the only other player that I've heard project so seductive a timbre through the instrument in live performance. The quartet's central movement that begins Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile, was breath-taking - each variation its own indelible gesture to a simple theme.
The final sforzando a-major chord in the second variation, outlined in parts, reminded me of the scherzo in Beethoven's ninth symphony (1824). And with the deceptive cadence that introduced the seventh variation, the Wagner' of Die Meistersinger (1867) made a backward glance. The Presto was characterised by rhythmic exactitude and the finale, an unbridled Allegro, brought the quartet to a mesmerising close.
Several inconsiderate members of the audience interrupted the instrumental effects in the Beethoven quartet with noisy giggles and gasps, as if conceding the holy ground to schoolboy pranks. Worse, though, was the decision to allow Simon Goldhill a platform for disruptive 'dramatic' readings between the quartets. (He ruined Nicholas Daniel's performance of Britten's Metamorphoses after Ovid with similar antics last January). Nevertheless, these problems scarcely detract from the Dante Quartet's formidable execution of two landmark works. This was perhaps the most accomplished music-making I've heard in Cambridge yet.