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Messiaen, Adès, Campbell, Berg: Mercury Quartet, St Michael and All Angels Church, Croydon 18.6.2009 (CR)

Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time is a deeply moving work, with strong religious and spiritual connotations. The piece deals with the plight of humanity, the nature of eternity and forces the listener to consider their own beliefs in these matters. One can only imagine the emotional involvement required to give a convincing performance. The profound nature of the work is such that the great performances are often associated with established players, who have a wealth of both musical and personal experience to draw on. It was interesting, then, to have the opportunity to hear a performance by the Mercury Quartet, a group of young men who are still students at the Royal College of Music, and have been playing together for just over a year.

In a short time, this ensemble has already made its mark on the contemporary music scene. Recent winners of Non-Classical’s Battle of the Bands, the group has also performed in venues such as St Martin in the Fields and at the Chelsea Schubert Festival.
The first half of the concert comprised three works; Adès’ Court Studies, a new work by Kings College student Ewan Campbell and Berg’s arrangement of the second movement of Kammerkonzert for clarinet, violin and piano. It took some time for my ears to adjust to the boomy acoustic of St Michael’s church, which was highly resonant and seemed to favour the middle and bass range. However, this was a good performance, with some wonderful quiet moments and a well blended sound. One would imagine these fine musicians had had a lifetime of playing together, such was the quality of their ensemble playing. The melodies were passed between the instruments in a considerate dialogue, with each player taking his turn to shine before handing over to another. Some tiny intonational errors did nothing to mar this expressive performance which demonstrated Adès’ rich harmonies and considered instrumental colours.

Ewan Campbell’s work, Patterned Echo Patterns was an enjoyable work, with repeated coruscating note patterns creating a poetic and lilting movement. Sudden bursts of energy broke the reverie, gradually diminishing back to the level of the opening. The composer made imaginative use of light, shade and colour, almost like a painting on canvas. There were some wonderfully haunting moments, and some particularly beautiful playing from Antoine Francoise on piano and Corentin Chassard on cello.

The first half ended with the trio arrangement of the second movement of Berg’s Kammerkonzert, which provided violinist Vlad Maistorovici with a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate his musicianship. His tone was rich and elegant, and was complemented by some beautifully sensitive piano and clarinet playing. Berg creates some stunning colours from this instrumental combination, and the work has a clarity of texture which came through well in this performance.

And so to the Messiaen, a performance which has so much to praise that it was disappointing that more of the residents of Croydon chose not to hear it. For me, the most impressive factor was the sense of ensemble; this performance had a very definite feeling of four people creating one sound, which varied in colour from the solo movements to the quartet tuttis. Even in the solos, the other players seemed to be involved, feeling every single note along with their colleagues. The group maintained the emotional level of the work well, and one has the sense that it will develop further over the next few years. A few minor intonation niggles soon settled, and the balance between instruments was generally very well judged. Harry Cameron-Penny delivered a highly convincing solo clarinet movement, with some dramatic dynamic contrasts (including some particularly breathtaking quiet high notes) and at times a sense of peaceful stillness. I would perhaps have liked a little more sparkle in the birdsong sections, but that may well have been a result of the acoustic. The dramatic ensemble movements, such as the Intermède and the Danse de la fureur were impeccably played, with charm and a wonderful youthful energy. The technical demands seemed effortless to these players, but they still managed to create the necessary tension to make the performance come alive. My two favourite movements, the Louanges for cello and violin were both excellent. The cello movement took the musical expression to a different level, raising the expressive stakes in the beautifully phrased lines. The accompanying piano chords were well placed and served as the driving force in the musical direction, although had a tendency to overpower slightly in the crescendos. The final crescendo was played with such passion that one had the sense of being taken to the very limit, before suddenly changing in dynamic and intensity for the tranquility of the ending. The final movement, Louange à l’Immortalité de Jésus was superbly played, with Maistorovici creating a stunning tone, full of rich expression. This was rapturous performance, raising to the heights in both pitch and passion.

The Mercury Quartet is certainly a group to watch. To achieve standards this high in such a short space of time is impressive, and one can only imagine how spectacular a performance of the Messiaen by the same players in ten years time might be. This was an enjoyable concert by some accomplished musicians. Hats off to the staff at St Michael’s for enabling this to happen in Croydon, where contemporary repertoire is scarcely performed.

Carla Rees

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