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Swansea Festival Of The Arts (3) - Haydn, Mozart, Marsh: Fitzwilliam Quartet: Lucy Russell, Jonathan Sparey (violin), Alan George (viola), Heather Tuach (cello), Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, 6.10.2009 (GPu)

Haydn: String Quartet in C Op.33, No.3
Mozart: String Quartet in B flat K458
John Marsh: Quartet in B flat
Haydn: String Quartet in D Op.50, No.6

As Neil Reeve pointed out in his review of it, the Swansea Festival concert which preceded this one by the Fitzwilliam Quartet had a decidedly avian theme – and we began in much the same territory a night later, given that the Fitzwilliams started their programme with the third of Haydn’s opus 33 set of quartets, which carries the nickname of ‘The Bird’. They closed their programme, however, with the sixth of Haydn’s Opus 50 set, ‘The Frog’; by the end of the evening musical ornithology had given way to musical herpetology.

This nicely designed programme was devoted, essentially, to Haydn and his influence. ‘The Bird’, which gets its name from the grace notes which decorate the principal theme of the opening allegro, from the trills in the violin duet of the scherzo and perhaps from the somewhat fragmentary musical conversation in the final rondo, a kind of bird-like jargoning. There is something irresistibly charming about the way Haydn lets the sounds of nature (suitably stylised) into his music. It is a reminder of how much – for all the stylistic difference – Haydn was heir (in a way that, say Mozart wasn’t) to the Baroque traditions of such musical onomatopoeia. ‘The Bird’ wasn’t, perhaps, perfectly served by the slightly unyielding reading it got from the Fitzwilliams, who found relatively little poetry in the adagio (which they took very slowly). Their phrasing of the ending of that movement was, however, particularly lovely. Overall, however, this was a Haydn whose rigour was at least as noticeable as his geniality.

The Opus 33 quartets of Haydn made a particularly profound impression on Mozart; indeed it is probably not going too far to say that they opened his eyes (and ears) to the possibilities of the form. Certainly the group of six quartets (K387, 421, 428, 458, 464 and 465) that he dedicated to Haydn on their publication in 1785 constitute a fitting emblem of the mutually influential relationship that existed between these two great composers. As one early biographer of Mozart (Franx Xaver Niemetschek in a volume published in Prague in 1808) put it: “In 1785 he published 6 masterly violin quartets, engraved, and with a dedication to his friend the Kapellmeister Joseph Hayden [sic] which is a beautiful expression of his esteem for this great man. And just as it increases Hayden’s fame to be honoured by an artist like Mozart, so does it also do honour to the latter, and endear us to the kindness of heart of heart of a man whose talent all men must admire”. We know – from Michael Kelley – that Haydn and Mozart actually played quartets together (with Johan Vanhal and Ditters von Dittersdorf – now that’s a ‘supergroup’ if ever there was one!) and Mozart’s closeness to Haydn is evident here. The Fitzwilliam’s playing of the opening of the work, didn’t perhaps quite have the jaunty quality of some performances, but it set the tone for a clearly thought out and articulated performance, in which the brief scherzo was invested with a certain Haydnesque humour. In the succeeding adagio the decorated theme for the violin was very attractively played; again, though, I could have done with just a bit more sense of relaxation and ease in the closing allegro.

After the interval we had the rare opportunity to hear music by John Marsh (1752-1828), reluctant lawyer and eager amateur musician, who was able to give up the law after coming into an inheritance in 1783. Something of a polymath, he published on such subjects as geometry, astronomy and religion, as well as on music; at various times he effectively ran musical life in Salisbury, Canterbury and Chichester as well as composing symphonies, church music and chamber music (and campaigning for the reform of English church music). His string quartet in B flat (composed in 1785) pays homage to Haydn and is described as being ‘composed in imitation of the style of Haydn’s opera prima’. His model, as this description implies, is found in the six quartets of Haydn’s opus 1. Like them Marsh’s quartet is in five movements; like them it exploits sudden contrasts between unison passages and passages in harmony; like them it has opening and closing movements marked presto; like them (or at any rate most of them) it has as much in common with the divertimento or the serenade as what we now think of as the string quartet. Marsh’s variant on the model provided by Haydn is full of fluent and attractive melodies and full of a thoroughgoing geniality. This is immensely social (one might say sociable) music – there’s no birdsong (nor any frogs) to be heard here; this is very much human music, the music of the assembly room par excellence. The Fitzwilliam Quartet played Marsh’s quartet with just the right sense of scale, with just the right ‘tone of voice’, as it were, quite without condescension and quite without inappropriate inflation or aggrandisement. The result was wholly pleasant.

By now, the quartet seemed more relaxed than it had in the first half. There was a greater sense of mutual listening and of musical conversation. This all made for a very impressive performance of the final work on the programme, a thoroughly mature work of Haydn’s (the sort of work that could stimulate a Mozart but was beyond the compositional reach of a Marsh), opus 50 no.6, ‘The Frog’. They gave us a particularly lucid account of the opening allegro, the contrapuntal argument clearly delineated, and followed it with a radiant reading of the adagio, a graceful quasi-Sicilienne whose beauty was eloquently stated. The wit and inventiveness of the menuetto brought out the best of the Fitwilliams, their teamwork lithely energetic, with Haydn’s wit beautifully pointed, but quite without any heavy-handed demonstrativeness. The final allegro was properly busy, the tempo well judged and the musical structures presented with irresistible clarity.

On the evidence of this one performance, the Fitzwilliam Quartet doesn’t quite have the sheer tonal beauty of some of the quartets I most admire; but there is no reason whatsoever to doubt the musical intelligence(s) at work in their performances and to enjoy – since it was what they played on this particular occasion - their readings of some significant classical quartets. I certainly did.

Glyn Pursglove 

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