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Never Compromise or Imitate”: Aart van der Wal talks to the members of the Navarra Quartet - December 2010 (AW)


In  2008, the Navarra Quartet won the Outstanding Young Artist Award at the MIDEM Classique Awards in Cannes. They were selected for representation by Young Concert Artists Trust in 2006, and in 2007 received a Borletti-Buitoni Trust Fellowship culminating in a highly acclaimed disc of Haydn’s “Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross”. Formed in 2002 at the Royal Northern College of Music under the guidance of the late Dr Christopher Rowland and Alasdair Tait, and subsequently as postgraduate students of the Alban Berg Quartet in Cologne, they are now Quartet in Association at the RNCM. In 2007, the Quartet won second
 prize at the Melbourne International Competition and in 2005 1st Prize in the Florence International Competition. 

At the opening
 of the 2009/10 season, the Quartet returned to Australia to give recitals in Melbourne, Sydney and the Huntingdon Estate Music Festival under the auspices of Musica Viva. They went on to appear at Wigmore Hall, the Bath Festival and Aldeburgh, and gave recitals in France (as Laureates of the Aix-en-Provence Festival), Switzerland, Italy, Ireland and the Netherlands. In 2010, the Quartet recorded their first CD for Challenge Records of Peteris Vasks’ Quartets and took part in the BBC Proms Chamber music series at Cadogan Hall with pianist Francesco Piemontesi. Future engagements include return visits to Wigmore Hall and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. Over the last two years, the Quartet has increasingly developed their international profile, appearing at major festivals and venues throughout Europe including the Philharmonie in Luxembourg, the Konzerthaus in Berlin, the Schwetzinger, Rheingau and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern Festivals in Germany, the Aix-en-Provence and Bellerive Festivals and the Kattegat and Sandviken Festivals in Sweden. Further afield, they have given concerts in Russia, the USA and Bahrain.

In 2009, they took part in the Haydn series at Wigmore Hall (broadcast by BBC Radio 3) and recorded Haydn’s “Seven Last Words on the Cross” for Altara Records, for which they commissioned nine paintings for illustrated performances from the world-renowned artist Jamie Boyd. They also worked with Wayne MacGregor’s Random Dance Company on a new work (Entity) with music by Joby Talbot, giving a series of performances at Sadler’s Wells, Snape Maltings and the Muziektheater in Amsterdam.

The Quartet has collaborated with the Elias, Australian, Heath and Sacconi Quartets, Li-Wei, Matthew Barley, Richard Harwood, Guy Johnston, Hansjörg Schellenberger, Jiri Hudec, Julius Drake, Allan Clayton, Patricia Bardon, John O’Conor and Alasdair Tait. They have taken part in the International Musicians Seminar at Prussia Cove and in 2008 were resident Quartet at the Britten-Pears School in Aldeburgh and at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland. The Quartet has broadcast for BBC Radio 3, RAI 3 (Italy), Radio 4 (Holland), SWR (Germany), Radio Luxembourg and ABC Classic FM (Australia).


I met the four members (Magnus Johnston and Marije Ploemacher, violin; Simone van der Giessen, viola; Nathaniel Boyd, cello) on Tuesday morning, 16 November, at the BIM House in Amsterdam, when they were preparing for the TV broadcast of VPRO’s ‘Vrije Geluiden’. They were about to perform the third movement (Adagio) from Peteris Vasks’s String Quartet No 3 (1995).

Chamber music, with the string quartet in its epicentre, typically offers the very best of the creative output of any composer. Above all, it enables us to witness his deepest thoughts and emotions. Compared to a string quartet, an orchestral work, irrespective of its beauty and impact, may even sound crude, with far less gradation. Susan Tomes, the pianist of the Florestan Trio (they record for the Hyperion label) wrote that many composers used chamber music to give us the truest portraits of themselves, their most intimate thoughts and feelings. There is no multiplication of means and effects, which sometimes makes orchestral music seem coarse. Instead, there is that wonderful conversation between people with meaningful things to say. With one person on each part, everyone is vital, and each player influences the others in an unpredictable way. Playing chamber music is like digesting life in the company of a newly acquired family. It seems to be in that perfect if not ideal periphery of the great orchestral hemisphere, where each and every string is magically touched and where a mere four individuals create all those many delicacies just to be sipped and savoured by their audiences. No wonder most connoisseurs are to be found in the field of chamber music!



Any string quartet, or any musical group for that matter, must work together closely as a real team, in order to steer clear of common oddities and pitfalls, but perhaps first and foremost each and every player should have the open mind and attitude that is needed to resolve interpretative problems when rehearsing together. On stage, it all comes down to strong emotional involvement in perfect balance with one another, ranging from immaculate phrasing to finely shaded dynamics. No wonder, really, that on their latest CD (Challenge Classics CC72365) the Navarra Quartet play the three string quartets by the Latvian composer Peteris Vasks (b. 1946) with such compassion and inner beauty that the dark music can really gradually emerge from its abysmal depths, where a culture seems to dwell on the threshold of evaporation. These bold performances deliver a strongly poetic and dramatic pulse, at the same time underlining the beautiful organic qualities of these works. After hearing their magnificent recording, I am entirely convinced that the Navarra’s almost telescopic resources make them ideal advocates of contemporary music. In need of further proof? Just go to their live recording on the Sonimage label of Ravel’s String Quartet and Shostakovich’ String Quartet No 5.

It was not a slip of the tongue when I told them that there were so many great string quartet ensembles already that conspicuous and adventurous programming of contemporary music should be in their cards. Unless they thought that performing new music is (still?) some kind of a luxury. Did they agree? The cellist, Nathaniel Boyd, delivers a fairly politically tuned answer: “We think that the great classical works are still very relevant today, as they always have been and will be. But we definitely would like to achieve a good balance between classic, romantic and today’s composers. Apart from that, modern music must be performed with equal passion and determination as so-called ‘old’ music.”

That would, one way or the other, work out as the sandwich formula which we encounter in so many concert programmes? ‘Old’ and ‘new’ in the same programme, with the modern or contemporary work ‘sandwiched’ between the classics? “Yes! That’s the best way to introduce new music to an audience. Let’s face it, we still meet a lot of scepticism when it comes to modern music, not to speak of really new compositions.”

How did they get to Vasks? “Actually, it was Challenge, our record label, which led us to his music a few years ago. We all found it fantastic music, and when we got deeper into it we became even more amazed. We really loved to do the string quartets, apart from other works we heard. I, for myself, was very impressed by a cello piece he had composed.”

Would they call it difficult music to play? When I first became aquainted with Vasks’s string quartets I found them pretty easy on the ear, at least more accessible compared to Ligeti’s string quartets, for instance, despite Vasks’s clear preference for audacious multi-layers. The four quartet members gave me some laughter as a reward for my apparently not so appropriate remark. Nathaniel again: “Well…to call it easy on the ear…You might be an exception (laughter again), although we can agree that his idiom is more easy to get to than of other composers. But when you really dig into Vasks’s music you will find more and more complexities waiting for you. This makes his music so rewarding!”

Is Vasks’ music also quite emotional? I would say that in most of his works one can hear the kind of pessimistic native folklore that is part of Latvian history, dominated so long by Russian oppression, the subsequent loss of human prosperity and dignity, adding to that the partial destruction of the environment and animal habitat by heavy industry. Simone van der Giessen: “That’s why his music goes to the bottom of our hearts. We are from another generation but we just
feel what has happened.”

It is obvious that this music contains more than one message, but is it strong enough to have a whole concert programme for itself? Nathaniel: “Yes, but we don’t do that. The plan for the future is to program the quartets for different concerts. We have to take into account various issues here, and the last thing we would like to do is to overload the public. By the way, this is not only the case with Vasks, or just modern composers, but also with many others from the more distant past. You really need to balance a programme, which is far more difficult than most people might think.”

You could also say that great music becomes even greater when it is programmed in a sensible, not to mention creative way. Even new music does not come from nothing, from a black hole so to speak. Each and every new piece is somehow embedded in musical history, one of the most incredible sources of human expression. Nathaniel: “All art is about expressing yourself, no matter if you are a composer, a painter, a writer or a performer. No one can do that artificially, by trying to be perfectly new. When you do that, you simply kill the art. That’s why I feel that so much contemporary art is such rubbish, with the artists being so dreadfully self-conscious that really no one can believe in it. They lost the intrinsic value of expression all the way down. Let’s be honest: the emotions we experience are not new, they are of all times, and a composer should not ‘steer’ these in a calculated way. If he did? They would work out to be anti-musical gestures, which are absolutely worthless.”

Let’s just agree that music should come from the heart, but at the same time we should not make it too simple a statement. No matter how far or how deep the emotions go, any good composer knows they need to be controlled in a structured way. One might even say that these emotions must be properly channelled in order to get to their destination. Composing by heart and by mind also means that the composer will always reach for the optimum effect. That also means structure and form, most often on an almost molecular level, greatly scaled and highly detailed. To put it in a nutshell: good music requires calculation. Nathaniel: “Absolutely, I couldn’t agree more, although maybe some composers can do without it, but not without skill because then it would appear to be a lost battle after all.”

How important is innovation in the creative arts, and particularly in music? Nathaniel: “The main question is, where should we put the emphasis? On innovation or on sincerity of expression? Or both?” I gave him my answer: on both.

I wanted to know why the Navarra’s recording on the Altara label was music by Haydn, the “Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross”. Marije Ploemacher: “We very much liked the idea of not only recording this work but also, in conjunction with the CD booklet, reproducing Jamie Boyd’s highly dramatic paintings. I believe it worked out be a feast for the ears
and the eyes. Even more so, we gave concert performances of this great work, whereas Jamie exhibited some of these paintings on the same occasion, as was done at the City of London Festival in St Stephen Walbrook, a small Anglican Parish church in London, for example.”

Talking about graphics, I recalled my interview with the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes (here) and the South African graphic artist Robin Rhode, who worked together in a project called
Pictures Reframed. Modest Mussorgsky’s (1839-1881) piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition, based on paintings by Viktor Hartmann (1834-1873), was at the heart of this venture, with Andsnes performing the music on stage and Rhode’s video graphics projected at the same time onto a specially designed stage set. Although two quite different projects, they both shared the same principle of the ear that meets the eye (or the eye meeting the ear). All the senses are activated, with the aural spectrum reaching visionary dimensions…literally! Marije: “We loved the idea of bringing this music and the painted images together, and not particularly from the standpoint of religion. But apart from that, Haydn wrote incredibly inspired music, which is actually a privilege to explore. Simone: “His music brings great rewards, to all of us, but also to our audiences. And finally, we get so much in return!”



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