S&H Concert review

Solaris Quartet: Rodney Bennett, Britten, Schubert, St James's Piccadilly, Friday 22 June (SD)

Resident at the London College of Music, the Solaris Quartet were formed in 1998. This characteristically imaginative programme juxtaposed the old with the new. Richard Rodney Bennett's Lamento D'Arianna, of which the Solaris gave the London première in March, is linked to the other works in the programme by the cheerful theme of death - from the 'Let me die' of Arianna's lament to the shadow of death hanging over Britten's Third Quartet (written on his deathbed) and, less overtly, Schubert's late C major Quintet. Members of the quartet gave lively (if not always audible) short introductions to each work, which was a bonus.

First came Rodney Bennett's modern take on Montverdi's famous madrigal Lamento d'Arianna (the only surviving piece from his opera, Arianna). An arrangement of the first stanza of the madrigal is played as a tonal introduction before the music goes off at a dissonant tangent reminiscent of Tippett's Fantasia on a Theme of Corelli, with meandering, despairing lines weaving in and out of each other; the leitmotivic use of Monteverdi's dark D- E flat-B flat-A theme is similar to the D-E flat-C-B (or DSCH) motif in Shostakovich's Eighth Quartet. The viola produced some beautifully clear, well-pointed playing and the quartet's ethereal final restatement of the madrigal theme was lovely.

Britten's last quartet begins in a similarly subdued manner to the end of the Rodney Bennett, with a swiftly emerging urgency as the composer's 'heart beats' begins to falter. The different voices of the quartet blended well despite occasional uncertainties of tuning, and the impassioned climax had an appropriate intensity. The first violin played the ostinato movement with wonderfully elegiac feeling. Perhaps put off by the loud chiming of a nearby clock, his ensuing solo cantilena started shakily with some rough tuning and rather thin tone, whereas in the twittering Janacekian interlude the second violin's pizzicato accompaniment came across very well. The leader was happier and more focused in the Burleseque and the cheeky recitative of the finale. Here the cello played tenderly in between the eerie ponticello scratchings (of Death, one presumes, at Britten's door) and in the closing Passacaglia.

In some ways Schubert's Quintet suited the Solaris Quartet very well. The work falls flat without a strong sense of abandon alongside classical refinement. And leader Mark Wilson has quite a wild, Peter Cropperesque streak. Although the opening page was slightly rushed he produced some eloquent phrasing in the allegro's long-breathed lines and aptly brusque articulation at the start of the development. Where the second violin echoes the first the temperamental contrast (and not-always-ideal communication) between the two is emphasised. Meanwhile the second cello played with great sensitivity, never allowing his pizzicato interjections to dominate, as can sometimes happen.

The adagio, taken quite flowingly, was compellingly phrased, though there were some inconsistencies of dynamics (especially with the pizzicato accompaniment) and some unevenness of tone from the leader. The scherzo generated a thrilling momentum and the trio was suitably brooding. But the beautiful singing cello lines in the finale were offset by some scrappy first violin playing and further moments of careless intonation.

A playful of Duke Ellington's I'll Take the A Train rounded off an enjoyable but tantalising concert by a group whose playing is musical and always thoughtful, yet suffers from intermittent insecurity of technique under pressure.

Sarah Dunlop

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