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Concert review: Navarra String Quartet

On Sunday 2 August at St Mary’s Cratfield, the Navarra String Quartet gave us a technically brilliant and sensitive performance of three very different quartets across the twentieth century. Demonstrating the best of ensemble playing, they revelled in the challenging, tight rhythmic sections in all three pieces, while responding to the voice of each composer and to each musician’s solo moments.

 ‘I have always dreamed that my music would be heard in the places where unhappy people are gathered,’ wrote Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks and this encapsulates the raw emotion and thoughtful mood of his String Quartet no 3 (1995). The tentative pizzicato of the Moderato led to the full-bodied, reflective playing of the cello and established the strong communication between the four players that lies at the core of their musicianship. The contrasting Allegro energico provided the opportunity for the group to display their thrilling technical expertise. The triumphant yet pensive movement led us to the climax with a single note left hanging in the silence. In the Adagio the lamenting waves of the music plumbed the depths of loss. The balance the group achieved shone through in the controlled and restrained crescendo expressing exquisite pain. The delicate birdsong of the final movement and the contrasting sections of peaceful and uplifting calm, against the dramatic, frantic bowing gave hope and energy to the world of sadness created by Vasks. This evocative piece gave voice to the experience of deep sorrow and contrasted effectively with Britten’s more personal expression of emotion as he neared the end of his life.

Peter Pears said of the Britten’s third and final string quartet, written in 1975, ‘of a preferred beauty more touching than anything else, radiant, wise, new, mysterious’. The interplay between the four instruments created an immediate intensity in the opening of this five-movement quartet. The viola and cello provided a strong, melodic ground on which the violins could display their frolicking dance. This pairing was repeated in the stronger, fast moving Ostinato which led to the plaintive and soaring violin solo, where amazing technical skill created a sound extruded from the instrument in a radiant purity. The vibrant, lively Burlesque brought us down to earth before we moved into the final movement with the mournful voice of the cello leading to solos for each instrument. An insistent heartbeat rhythm drew us inexorably to the end; a triumphant climax of the bells, then silence. The mystery of this piece was captured perfectly in the quartet’s mature ensemble playing.

Moving back in time to the start of the twentieth century, we found ourselves on a sunny Sunday afternoon in the middle of a French impressionist painting as we listened to Ravel’s String Quartet in F (1902-3). It was dedicated to Fauré, who described the last movement as ‘stunted, badly balanced, in fact a failure’, while Debussy wrote to Ravel: ‘… in the name of the gods of music and in my own, do not touch a single note you have written in your Quartet’. This creative tension is evident in the piece. The young composer wished to write this quartet in the classical tradition but the finished piece reflects the exciting and innovative period in which Ravel lived.  The quartet basked in the romantic melody of the opening motif, which was repeated in the third and fourth movements. They moved effortlessly from the pizzicato, spirited and effervescent sections to the more lyrical, expressive passages. The opportunity this piece gives for elegant, pensive playing was fully exploited and explored, particularly by the viola. The final section, Vif et agité, with its transition from delicate to frantic, dramatic passages then to the powerfully lyrical, presented a demanding technical challenge which the quartet attacked with relish.

The Navarra Quartet combines technical brilliance with a fine musical sensitivity to the voice of the composer and his music. A fantastic way to spend a Sunday afternoon!

Lin Le Versha

3 August 2015