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Proms Chamber Music 11: Haydn, Debussy, Szymanowski and Bree: Meta4 (Antti Tikkanen - Minna Pensola (violins) – Atte Kilpeläinen (viola) - Tomas Djupsjöbacka (cello)), Psophos Quartet (Lisa Schatzman – Bleuenn Le Maître (violins), Cécile Grassi (violas) – Eve–Marie Caravassilis (cello)), Royal String Quartet (Izabella Szalaj-Zimak – Elwira Przybylowska (violins) – Marek Czech (viola) – Michal Pepol (cello)), Pavel Haas Quartet (Veronika Jaruskova – Marie Fuxová (violins) - Pavel Nikl (viola) – Peter Jarusek (cello)), Cadogan Hall, London, 30.8.2009 (BBr)

Haydn: String Quartet in D major, op.20/4 (1772)
Debussy: String Quartet in G minor, op.10 (1893)
Szymanowski: String Quartet No.1 in C major, op.37 (1917)
Johannes Bernardus van Bree: Allegro for four string quartets (c1845)

The second day of the celebration of the BBC New Generation Artists scheme started with a string quartet recital and there can’t be any better way to start your Sunday than with a recital of string quartets, and when you’ve got four of the most exciting young ensembles around today that makes it even more worthwhile.

Meta4 is a Finnish group, and their performance of Haydn’s op.20/4 got things off to a cracking start. The players obviously loved every minute of this early work, and this was a very thoughtful and enjoyable account. They fully understood the humour of the piece and gave the first movement a cohesion many have missed, welding the slow repeated chordal idea with the more energetic sections, and making a whole of the structure. It was delightful. The slow movement with its various groupings of duo and trio was well placed and the rhythms of the zingarese minuet had a real kick to them. The finale was a race, but it never became hectic, and their handling of the “take it or leave it” ending was a real joy. Super stuff.

The Psophos Quartet, a French ensemble, was perfectly at home in Debussy’s work. Starting with a statemnent of the opening theme which was more melodic than rhythmic, as so often happens, they built a first movement which was full of action but never became overstated. The gorgeous slow movement was a lesson in quiet sustained playing and the finale was decisive and energetic.

Szymanowski’s 1stString Quartet was written at the time he was still under the spell of Eastern mysticism and Scriabin and has some of the hothouse feeling of the 3rdSymphony and the magnificent 1stViolin Concerto. The Royal Quartet, a Polish group, showed a superb insight into this work which contrasts an almost impressionistic slow introduction to the first movement with a wild country dance in the finale. With a performance of this quality, this ensemble could bring the work to a wider audience, and I hope that it does.

In the normal course of events that would have been the end of the show but when you’ve got three quartets of this calibre on the same programme, and the Pavel Haas Quartet from yesterday is on hand it’s far too tempting not to get them all together and Bree’s Allegro for four string quartets was just what the doctor ordered. Johannes Bernardus van Bree (1801 – 1857) was a Dutch composer, violinist and conductor. He wrote operas, choral, orchestral and instrumental works but this Allegro seems to be his sole claim to fame. It has been recorded, which is the only reason we know it. It’s great fun, maiking great play of letting the music move across the stage from one quartet to the other – the four quartets sit together, not as a string orchestra – and back again. There’s sections for the tutti, duets, trios, quartets etc, every conceivable combination and it’s quite Mendelssohnian in texture but, and here’s the real shock, when he writes for the full ensemble it could be Tchaikovsky, so rich is the texture.

The show was slightly overlong, because of the inclusion of Bree’s Allegro, but as it ended with such good feeling one cannot complain.

Bob Briggs

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