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S & H Concert Review

Haydn, Schnittke, Beethoven Alban Berg Quartet, QEH, January 31st, 2003 (CC)


There was a bonus to this concert. The viola player of the Alban Berg Quartet, Thomas Kakuska, announced that 'as the quartet enjoys it so much in London', we were to hear the Introduction from Haydn's 'Seven Last Words of our Saviour on the Cross' (HobIII/50-56, Op. 51) as an 'overture' to Schnittke's Fourth Quartet, and ‘please could there be no applause between the two works’. Actually, the concept worked remarkably well. Haydn's six-minute introduction, beginning with a bold gesture and, in the hands of the ABQ, emerging as fragile and full of contrasts (which were emphasized in this performance), had an expressively concentrated atmosphere which led perfectly into the rarefied Lento first movement of the Schnittke (whereupon the sum total of London's bronchial complaints was unleashed).

Schnittke's Fourth Quartet was written in 1989 in response to a commission from this very ensemble. Its delicate world requires total concentration from both audience and performers if its riches are to be revealed, as silence is of the utmost importance (as in the music of Webern, silence functions as an integral part of the musical discourse). Like the Haydn, there is much anguish here. The Alban Berg Quartet consistently astonished: to hear contemporary music played to this level of performance is a rare treat indeed.

The piece is in five movements. The first three are played segue: Lento-Allegro-Lento. The Lentos make a quartertone oscillation into a powerful expressive device, giving an otherworldly tinge to the sound-scape. The central Allegro, which features pizzicato exchanges over an extended ‘cello pedal was technically superb, dynamic and busy (the wind-down back to the Lento was perfectly judged). The fourth movement 'Scherzo', with its insistent rhythms, exuded tremendous energy, but it was the unremitting angst of the finale (another Lento) which remained lodged in the memory, with a chorale bringing a curious sense of repose.

In a sense, anything less than late Beethoven next would have been an anti-climax. One of the greatest pieces of music ever written, the C sharp minor Quartet, Op. 131 (1826) was magnificent (the Alban Berg Quartet's recordings of this repertoire are justly famous). This made for an exhausting concert to sit through such was the weight of its sheer concentration. The opening fugue of Op. 131 was remarkable for the way in which this performance laid bare the beauty and the purity of Beethoven's lines (the sf of the theme impacting as an emotional jab). It was a thing of wonder. Even the lighter movements remained under an umbrella of determined concentration whilst carrying with them the requisite wit.

Perhaps the extended variation movement was the highlight, with its curious juxtaposition of emotions, and the whole imbued with a supernatural lightness and tenderness. The account was at once touching and uplifting.

The Alban Berg Quartet's two remaining recitals this season (February 19th and May 15th) are to be eagerly awaited.

Colin Clarke


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