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



As said before, there are so many recordings already of the string quartets by the great classic Viennese composers. Nowadays, especially young string quartet ensembles have turned to them, but also to chamber music of the romantic area; and to the quartets by Ravel and Debussy. Just to drop a few names: the Artemis, Belcea, Casals, Ebène, Zehetmair, Matangi, Prazák, Jerusalem and London Haydn Quartets. What could the Navarra’s possibly add to the ‘flood’ of interpretations of for instance the Beethoven quartets on record? What could be their artistic challenge? Nathaniel: “Maybe it’s a kind of ‘vanity’ project, just to have our own interpretation out there. On the other hand it is also an essential part of our growth as a quartet. These classic pieces have allowed the quartet medium to evolve, they are inseparable from it. And, as you said, where we are now is the result of all that. We strongly believe that it is very important to record these works at various stages in our career, to have a record of the relevance of our interpretations in the scope of it. But apart from that, Beethoven is as relevant today as he ever was. To have a contemporary take on his art is very important, and not only for and from us!”

One of the greatest virtues of any concert, no matter whether it is instrumental, chamber, choral or orchestral, is the programming, which should - in my mind – be daring first of all, but also versatile and interlinked, either by an idea, a motto or liaised with some sort of historical context that makes sense. I think that people should see the connections, even if centuries are separating them. The new and unexplored mixed with the well-established and familiar can work out very positively for
each work on the programme. You might even get more synergy from a Beethoven quartet when you combine it with Ligeti’s, or vice versa. Nathaniel: “I don’t know. When I go to a concert with Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, and they play it beautifully, I will be very satisfied. It goes without saying that I shall feel rewarded by a very fulfilling musical experience. But apart from that we have the capacity to learn new things from familiar music, as a musician and as a listener. This is also what we talk about here, the intrinsic richness of the music, the tremendous value of it.”

But? “I feel very strongly about that, but I completely agree with what you said, that we
need to broaden the musical perspective of the audience. Otherwise, music might indeed fizzle out at the end. The public must experience new sound worlds, new composition techniques, and it needs to develop the right perception for these. As you said, music must never be confined to the kind of museum we all detest.”

Music not exclusively kept within the walls of tradition and convention. It sounds spot on, but what would a concert agent say when the Navarra Quartet suggested Ligeti and Kurtág for the concert’s main course? Again, Nathaniel: “They often don’t want contemporary music to be performed in their hall at all.” Marije sharpens her pencil: “They
never want it.” Good intentions are killed in front of the box office? Well, that sandwich formula might sometimes help out, with a small piece by Kurtág as the appetiser and Haydn and Beethoven as the main course. Nathaniel: “Once we did an experiment, by coincidence. We came to a concert, but we ‘misunderstood’ the programme, to put it diplomatically (big smile).

Shostakovich was on the programme, but we thought we would play Schnittke. After some consideration we decided to give the audience a choice, and we took their votes on either Shostakovich or Schnittke. And you know what? They opted for…Schnittke! Wow! An interesting, ‘social’ experiment, so to say! But apart from all that, I think that at the end of the day it is our personal commitment to the performance of the piece that finally makes all the difference. Any audience will get at least something if not a lot from that. The public will distinguish the difference, whether they particularly like the music or not; which is, in itself, quite another matter.”

You believe in the bare necessity of communicating with the public? Not by talking, but by the intensity of your playing? Nathaniel: “Yes, because when the message gets lost, there are only those notes, you know.”

I suggested that lovers of the string quartet or any chamber music are already accustomed to more complex musical patterns compared to those mainly interested in orchestral works and operas. Marije: “In a symphony orchestra you have many instruments, many lines, many doublings, quite contrary to for example a string trio or string quartet.” Nathaniel: “I agree with you that there are all sorts of technical limitations in the orchestral scoring of the nineteenth century. Instruments and sometimes players were limited in their technical resources. On the other hand, there can be nothing against a composer or a musician who limits himself in order to let his creativity flow. There is not such as a limitless process, and that’s why composers developed devices and techniques to express themselves. The twelve-tone-system is just a technique and composers have been imposing that. I think it is crucially important that there are limits in order to create profound music. That doesn’t mean that I disagree with you, but I feel that Beethoven is almost an exception anyway, because he adopted a unique language in his quartets, which he used to push the boundaries further ahead. Maybe that in the social environment he lived in he was or felt more free or compelled to experiment? Not only because of form but also by breaking the borders of convention, with the symphony as his bread and butter, and the quartet as specifically his own, strictly individual domain, a terrain for himself that did not require specific technical provisions. Perhaps – together with the trio and the sonata - the quartet offered him the opportunity to test his own limits as a composer. We might also look at it in another way: with just two colours for a painting you can create an endless number of colours, and you may force yourself to do so.”

You studied with the famous Alban Berg Quartet. What did you learn from them? Marije: “It is difficult to give examples, because they would be mainly technical, but the major objective of studying with them was to raise both our technical and interpretative standards as a quartet. They are so experienced and they know so much about the technical and interpretative characteristics of quartet playing that it was a delight really to absorb what they conveyed to us. Of course, all four of them have a different approach to music, but that made it so fascinating, to see things from different perspectives, often anew, and to be gradually able to develop your own critical standards. They also taught us to play well, even we did not feel well or were distracted.”

Do you usually follow the metronome markings in the score? Marije: “No, we don’t take these for granted. I’m not saying that it is easy to get the basic tempo right from the beginning. We all have our own bio! What is good for me is not necessarily good for the others. And it can change by the day. Working with the Alban Berg Quartet also means working with ourselves, trying to find the right pulse and keeping it. Discussions? Yes, plenty, but that is an inevitable part of the entire rehearsal process. At the same time it is exhilarating, inspiring and exciting to work hard on a score together.”

How do the four of you decide on the programme to be played? Nathaniel: “Funny enough, in our time as a quartet we never had any serious disputes about repertoire. We’re very open, but we are obviously spoilt, with so many great pieces written for the string quartet. There is a lifetime of repertoire to be performed!

Simone: “We try a piece we want to play and, speaking for myself, ultimately I love it when I can discern certain connections or recognize interesting key points.” Marije: “Over the last three years, I felt really desperate to play the Brahms A minor quartet, and we are now going to play the piece!” Nathaniel: “You know, Marije, you always had the strongest opinion of the four of us about a certain piece! When discussing it back and forth, in the end you only need someone who is decisive, who wants to go for it.”

Compared to the sixties, we have an incredible number of great quartets travelling throughout Europe, but also touring the United States, South America, Asia and Australia. Only the sky seems to be the limit. Many of those quartets, like the Artemis and the Navarra, were founded when its members were still studying at the conservatory. Marije: “Sometimes you can just be lucky with a great teacher who stimulates playing together. The sparks might just fly!” Nathaniel: “We can also consider ourselves lucky to have the same type of background. That also applies to Magnus, who joined us later. I think it was not so much the specifics of our music making that brought and kept us together, but even more the energy we put into it, as a kind of extraordinary experience, and sharing that with each other. We have proven ever since that we can draw on that.”

Is there a leader? Seeing and hearing the quartet, I didn’t get the impression that there is one? Marije: “Indeed there isn’t.. We play
together, which also means we have one objective together. We know what we want to accomplish and how to do it with the best of our abilities.” Nathaniel: “Quartet playing also means working on a specific sound, the necessity of meticulously blending each other’s musical individuality. Even when we have a disagreement about how a phrase here and there should go, we have our common goal in mind and we know that we always have to face the right direction.”



The violinist Xander van Vliet left and was replaced by Magnus Johnston. What effect did the change have on the ensemble? Marije: “It brought us new and fresh energy.” Nathaniel: “We had a great time playing together with Xander for about eight years, but, of course, it is a different thing to work with Magnus now.” Marije: “It worked out very well, he loved it, and we loved it. Xander’s and Magnus’s playing is distinctive, but also Magnus touches common ground! As said before, heading for a common direction is the main thing.” Magnus: “I already played in quartets at college, with the same teacher as my three colleagues. Over the last five years, several opportunities came my way, but at the time I didn’t feel quite ready to take on the challenge again. The life of a freelance musician is really quite different from the life of a quartet player. It is of a different intensity. I’m not saying that it was not in my thinking to get back to the string quartet, but maybe I just needed that call from the Navarra to get the feeling that this could really be it. I rang a few people to get their advice and finally decided to go for it, with an open mind. What I strongly felt with the Navarra was that same intention, that same spirit as I had. When it grabs you it doesn’t let you go. But it is arguably an all-or-nothing-career because there is not much left of a private life. Even when you’re not together, it is on your mind. Suddenly you’re so much more aware of the course of your own personal development and that of the quartet, and of your own responsibilities as a quartet player. A free-lance musician does not experience that, he is more or less on his own, with far less pressure to cope with. I think that a solo career is less demanding in comparison.”

Nathaniel: “It is resilience, the ups and downs, as we are constantly challenging ourselves musically. You have to find your own voice, your own identity in the team and that is very, very intense. As a free lancer you turn up and you go home. Sometimes that’s great, sometimes it isn’t. A group is kettle of fish - we rely on each other so much! There are risks everywhere, and especially in the intense environment of the string quartet, but when you are prepared to take them, it can be enormously rewarding. Always going for the safe route might leave you without those many pleasures!”

Did performances by other quartets influence their playing? Nathaniel: “It would be fascinating to meet a musician who could develop his skills and then be exposed to music fresh. I would be amazed how he would interpret it. You can’t possibly distinguish between what you have learned and what is in front of you. It must have been something very, very special for Yehudi Menuhin to hear David Oistrakh playing at a live performance for the first time in his life, with Oistrakh coming straight from Russia. Maybe in the sixties and seventies there was more individuality in playing. Today, we can hear the whole world, there is that strong sense of globalisation, off and on the record. It has become so easy to copy each other. I recall one great example of artistic individuality, Mstislav Rostropovich’ recording of Shostakovich’ Cello Sonata with the composer at the piano [recorded at Radio House, Moscow, date unknown, now part of the EMI Mstislav Rostropovich Complete Recordings release, 26 CDs, catalogue No 2 17597 2 7 – AvdW]. That incredible freedom of expression, it is so revealing! It shows you that vastly different interpretations can be of great importance and validity. It is a major responsibility for any artist to interpret music in a very different way. Of course there is no right or wrong, but it is so exciting to listen to a completely different take on a piece we think we know well. In a way, to play great music is like giving birth to a child. It will grow up, it will become its own person and it will finally take its own part in life. It is virtually the same with music. A composer gives his music to the world and has to leave it to musicians to raise it. He can no longer protect it, although it will always remain
his baby.”

Could they understand people who say that - for instance - the Busch or Végh Quartet sound old fashioned today? Nathaniel: “No, no, that’s just terrible! We should not look back like that!” We should not because we need to recognise that what we experience in music making today is not necessarily right (or wrong), compared to the past. Identifying gradually changing style mechanisms is one thing, but rejecting them is quite another. The greatness of the history of music making is also its plasticity. Nathaniel: “Yes, fifty years from now people will most likely have quite a different opinion of our current recordings. There is that great opportunity to leave our recordings ‘to the earth’, and that people just might listen to them about half a century later.”

Magnus: “My life, my musical perception was changed after having heard all those great masters I came to admire greatly. One day I would like to have the chance to teach this. We have all those great fiddlers, as you will know from that superb DVD “The Art of Violin”, to name just one. It gives you a greater sense of what you’re doing yourself, and it gives you the kind of meaning, of direction you need for your own individual playing. It is so stimulating and there is so much added value in musical history!”

The fact is, music making is always subject to time and taste. There are those old recordings that seem to stay with us forever, and for a very good reason, but I agree that each generation has its own Bach, or Haydn or Schubert.” Marije: “As Magnus said, we listen to very old recordings, like those of the Végh Quartet. There is so much freedom in their interpretations, so many great things to explore in them.” Nathaniel: “Nowadays musicians lack the courage to just do things their own way. There are those careers that seem to demand a more safely guided approach. Musicians are judged all the time by almost anyone in this business and they need to be careful. In this highly competitive field, it is neither customary nor easy to stick out your neck. You can but it is rare. I believe that the main thing is that you are true to yourself, that you don’t compromise or imitate, that you remain faithful to your own musical thoughts and your playing style. Otherwise you might end up being nobody.”


2010 © Aart van der Wal /



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