Thursday 18 June 2009

The Diotima Quartet & Nicholas Daniel - Haydn, Carter, Janacek and my missing socks

It's nice to back in Aldeburgh for another festival, and even if I did have to miss Ligeti's hundred metronomes. Still, Aldeburgh Music had laid on something very fine for my first concert in the form of the Diotima Quartet. Their programme presents a slight challenge in the writing of a review, since I don't think I've heard any of the four pieces before.

First up was Haydn and the op.20/1 quartet in E flat. They played it very nicely, though it is not one of his greater works. They had a nice unity to their playing, coming close to having a single voice, in the manner of the Budapest Quartet (something or a benchmark for me in this regard). They communicated well with each other, though perhaps more subtly than some.

This was followed by two works from Elliott Carter, who, despite being over one hundred, had travelled to attend the concert (and looked remarkably spry for his age). Interestingly, Naaman Sluchin and Yun-Peng Zhao alternated as first and second violins. In the opening bars I was concerned that this might be of what I call the whirr-plonk school of modern music. I needn't have been concerned: from there on in the piece flowed very nicely. It was a compelling performance of a compelling work and I was left wanting to hear it again so I could get a better feel for it. Fortunately Radio 3 will oblige by broadcasting the concert on 26th June. Or, at least, I thought they were, but having checked their website, I now find whoever is in charge of these things has foolishly chosen only three works and has dropped this in favour of the Haydn. I'll just have to track down a recording instead. Bother. (On the off chance anyone from Radio 3 is reading this, I'll take the opportunity to point out how poorly laid out your website is compared with previous years - it used to be that you could click a link and see all the broadcasts from a certain festival. Only logical, you and I might well think, but no longer. Please sort this out, it isn't rocket science.)

But, as usual, I digress. Following the interval came more Carter, this time with Nicholas Daniel replacing Scluhin to form an oboe quartet. This too was good, with Daniel playing to a similarly high standard as the quartet. However, the work did not flow quite so well and it didn't seem as satisfying a piece. The oboe part seemed quite physically demanding, with a series of extended notes leaving Daniel looking worryingly short of breath (as a brass player I can empathise). The presence of an oboist did make me slightly regret the choice of the Haydn: how much better it would have been to have had Britten's superb Phantasy Quartet instead.

What, you might be wondering (unless you follow me on twitter), does any of this have to do with my socks? Well, the finale was provided by Leos Janacek. I'm very familiar with his orchestral and operatic works, being a fan of Charles Mackerras, how could I not be? However, his chamber music is virtually unknown to me. I first met some of it in last year's Ades/Isserlis concert and have been meaning to explore further ever since; but, like some many things, never quite got round to it. However, the Diotima were on hand with his second quartet Intimate Letters. It was superb; indeed, it knocked my socks off. Janacek has a distinctive sound and style, in particular there is nothing quite like his orchestration: the richness and brassiness, the textures and colours of it. What is remarkable is just how much of that he is able to recreate with a string quartet. So too the sense of yearning that permeates so much of his operatic writing. Indeed, emotionally the quartet makes you feel as though you were in the opera house. They played it superbly, and with great passion (so much so that first violin was losing bow stings so fast it is as well the piece wasn't too much longer).

They have recently recorded both quartets, along with an alternate version of Intimate Letters which features Garth Knox on viola d'amore (I reviewed him a few months back in a superb solo viola recital). It's always a measure of a good performance when you feel you have to buy the CD afterwards. The concert can be thoroughly recommended when it is broadcast next Friday.

The Diotima also featured in the first concert given by the festival's new artistic director (Pierre-Laurent Aimard) last Saturday. I'm sorry to have missed it, those I know who went say it was a fascinating programme. Fortunately, the festival are making it available on their website (both audio and video) next week.

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