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