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St Ceciliatide International Festival of Music – Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Merel Quartet, Stationers´ Hall, London, 20th November 2003 (H-T W)


London concert debuts rarely fulfill expectations; regular visitors to the Wigmore Hall or St John´s Smith Square can tell you a thing or two about that. Fortunately, this fact does not count for the short, annual St Ceciliatide International Festival of Music, an exquisite event in the breathtaking surroundings of the Stationers´ Hall in the City of London and Dr.Penelope Rapson, the Festival´s artistic director, knows perfectly well, how to translate `small is beautiful´ into reality.

This year marks the 600th anniversary of the formation of the Stationers´ Company. As early as 1683, a group of composers, performers and music enthusiasts, called "Gentlemen Lovers of Musick" devised the idea of commissioning an ode for the feast of St Cecilia, patron saint of music, to be performed in the Stationers´ Hall; in 1692 it was the turn of Henry Purcell with "Hail! Bright Cecilia". In recognition of the anniversary this year’s festival repertoire tried to cover almost 600 years, of which the Viennese classical period is the climax of absolute music. Nearly 200 `lovers of musick´ filled the hall to capacity to witness the London Debut of the Merel Quartet, which had been given the honour to represent this specific period.

Despite being based in Zürich this young and exciting quartet, founded in 2001, but already outshining many other string quartets, has a strong English connection. It is the brainchild of the violist Louise Williams, one of the most experienced and versatile English chamber musicians. In 2001 she taught at the International Musicians´ Seminar at Prussia Cove in Cornwall, where she met the young Swiss cellist Rafael Rosenfeld. An instant rapport with him led to the formation of the Merel Quartet together with his wife Mary Ellen Woodside, an American violinist and former student of Yfrah Neaman, who is now a principal in the Tonhalle Orchestra, and the young Swiss violinist Esther Hoppe, winner of last years´ 8th International Mozart Competition in Salzburg, as its primus inter pares. These four musicians are all deeply rooted in the European tradition of the late Sándor Végh, the eminent Hungarian violinist, conductor and teacher, who founded the seminar at Prussia Cove, a paradise for young musicians now under the artistic direction of Steven Isserlis.

Louise Williams, a founder member of the Endellion Quartet, and a regular partner of both the Chilingirian and Lindsay Quartets, as well as the Nash Ensemble, commented on her new quartet: "Hopefully, my previous experience of quartets can be an asset, though I very much want to start again from the beginning, re-examining all the pieces, being part of the learning process, which must be slow and thorough." 

With the first piece, Joseph Haydn´s rarely heard last - and unfinished - string quartet, the D-minor op.103, I realised the players instinctive feeling for the classics, but also their approach for clarity and excitement without ever playing in a virtuoso manner; not only were they true to the text, but each player was allowed his or her own individuality. It is interesting that Haydn, the father of the string quartet, started out with the middle movements, an Andante grazioso with variations and a Minuet and Trio. But looking at all his late quartets it shows that the texture of the middle movements builds the basis for the whole quartet. Sadly, he never finished this particular Quartet, which shows him at the height of his art as a quintessential 18th century composer.

Ludwig van Beethoven´s Quartet in F-major, op.18 No.1 followed, a work full of contrasts and unexpected accents. Here, it was the second movement Adagio affettuoso ed appasionata, which received the most magical interpretation. Beethoven never had any sense for opera or for the stage – even his Fidelio is, as a whole, weak and disappointing - but nearly each movement in his entire quartet output possesses drama and theatricality. Beethoven himself saw in this movement Romeos final farewell to Juliet. The Merel Quartet did this vision proud in a way I cannot recall in any of the many interpretations I have heard.

The final work, Franz Schubert´s Quartet in D minor "Death and the Maiden" is sadly overexposed and, therefore, has lost a lot of its impact and romantic fierceness. The Merel Quartet came up with a dauntless solution. They must have studied it completely from scratch thereby trying to forget everything they had ever heard or played. The outcome was a revelation of freshness, explosive directness and energy. They took the tempi, even in the slow movement, much faster than usual, which allowed the dark urgency to develop. The constantly changing dynamics went under the skin. As the Stationers´ Hall is slightly over-resonant, I felt confronted with a kind of very clear organ sound, a musical storm, but without the slightest overlapping; it was dangerous, but also deeply emotional, and simultaneously refreshing and disturbing. If ever Schubert’s monumental string quartet has received an interpretation so made for our troubled times - but without loosing the essence of Schubert´s genius - it happened this evening.

Welcome, Merel Quartet, and please, be forever a constant reminder that all music can, and should, sound as fresh and overwhelming as though one is experiencing it anew.

Hans-Theodor Wohlfahrt


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