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Beethoven, Ligeti and Tchaikovsky: Atrium Quartet (Alexey Naumenko, Anton Ilyunin (violins), Dmitry Pitulko (viola), Anna Gorelova (cello) Wigmore Hall, London, 8.7.2009 (BBr) 

Beethoven: String Quartet in Eb, Harp, op.74 (18-09) 
Ligeti: String Quartet No.1, Métamorphoses nocturnes (1953/1954)
Tchaikovsky: String Quartet No. 2 in F, op.22 (1874)

The Atrium Quartet won the London International String Quartet Competition in 2003, amongst other prizes, and it’s easy to hear why; the members work very well together, have a superb ensemble, and it is obvious that they share an intense delight in their music-making. This is what made tonight’s show so enjoyable.

That they didn’t settle down until the third movement of the Beethoven is no criticism, for it takes time to “warm up” and get the feel of a pleasingly full hall, and this Quartet is no kind of overture. There was a fine and sustained feel to the slow introduction to the first movement which was followed by a very enjoyable and jaunty Allegro but the slow movement’s mixture of rondo form and variation suffered because, although each section was very clearly characterized, the movement as a whole didn’t hang together as a compete entity. However, the scherzo was magnificently malevolent and the fugal trio quite devilish (superb articulation of the separate parts here). The variations of the finale, much simpler in form than the second movement, came off very well, and then ending, a wild flourish followed by the most subdued of cadences left us all gasping and sitting in silence not wishing to break the mood with applause. Despite my slight misgivings about feeling some detachment of feeling in the first two movements, overall this was a fine exposition of the music.

No greater contrast could be imagined between the classical poise of Beethoven and the wild imaginings of the young György Ligeti. Written for his “bottom drawer”, when Ligeti wrote his 1st Quartet he knew that with its modern idiom he had no chance of achieving a performance in his own country and he had to wait until 1958 – two years after the came to the west – for the première. That event must have been quite an occasion for, at that time, nothing quite like this work could have been heard in public. Already there are the seeds of his later language, the exploitation of micro-polyphony, the insistence on small motifs to carry his argument and a stubborn obsession with mixing the lighter with the intensely serious. This one movement piece, playing for a mere 20 minutes – it feels much larger – contains within its span a kaleidoscope of imagery, insane gypsy fiddling, deep tragedy, a waltz with the accent in the wrong place and some Bartókian night music - Ligeti has said that his middle quartets were his inspiration - which turns into a nightmare scenario. This is fabulous stuff and if the work has one failing it is the inability of the composer to end his work satisfactorily. The final section is too loose in construction to make a truly satisfaction conclusion flitting, as it does, between moods, which don’t quite gel, but the ending, when it comes, is quite magical. The Atrium gave a magnificent performance of this complicated work, making the lines clear and allowing us to hear the work not just as a steeping stone in Ligeti’s career but as a logical continuation of the string quartet tradition.

After the interval we were given Tchaikovsky’s 2nd Quartet. This is not the delight which is the 1st Quartet but a much bolder work which, unfortunately, fails not least because much of the writing strives for orchestral fullness – much of it is big and chordal and not really quartet–like and after a time, for me about the middle of the third, slow, movement, the ear tires of such rich and thick sonorities. It also doesn’t have the tunes we expect from this composer and the working out, although well done, is too academic and there isn’t sufficient fun – it’s all a bit too serious. In his excellent notes in the programme book Misha Donat made the point that the dissonant and mysterious slow introduction to the first movement contained perhaps the most interesting music of the whole work and he was right; nothing which followed showed quite that mastery and inspiration. But the Atrium Quartet played the music for all they, and it, was worth and the players obviously relished the challenges it gave them. As a composition I was left wondering if all their passionate advocacy was really worth it. I do feel that they, and their audience, would have been better served by one of the later Shostakovich Quartets, or even one of the magnificent works in the genre by the much underrated Vasily Lobanov, whose work we hear all too seldom.

As an encore we were given the quartet arrangement of the Polka from Shostakovich’s ballet The Age of Gold, the bizarre and angular music sitting uncomfortably on quartet (one does miss the xylophone in the tune) but it was a suitably relaxed end to a concert which contained much to admire and enjoy.

Bob Briggs

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