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Concert review: Professor Roger Parker and the Badke Quartet

Blyth Valley Chamber Music, the charity which presents Concerts at Cratfield, has as its object ‘ … to promote, improve, develop and maintain public education in and appreciation of the art and science of chamber music in all its aspects by the presentation of professional public concerts and by such other ways as the Society through its Committee of Trustees shall determine from time to time.’  Educational events have occurred at 11 year intervals recently: perhaps they should be a little more frequent.

This, the fifth concert of the 2015 season, was in the form of an introductory talk by Roger Parker followed by a performance of each piece played by the Badke Quartet: Haydn’s op 77 no 2 before the interval and Beethoven’s op 18 no 4 afterwards.  A recording of each of the talks will shortly be posted on the Concerts at Cratfield website.  Part of the text of a Gresham College lecture Professor Parker gave in 2007 was printed in the programme and is already on the website (click here): it is a lucid introduction to the practical difficulties faced by the players and the rise of the popularity of the string quartet and is well worth reading.

Roger Parker has considerable experience of talking about music, string quartets in particular.  The length of his introductions, 15 – 20 minutes, was carefully judged while providing an informative and interesting guide to each of the works.  It was fascinating to learn about, and then hear, two quartets written within 12 months of one another at the turn of the eighteenth century. Haydn’s was the last complete quartet he wrote, and Beethoven’s among the first. Both were commissioned by the Bohemian Prince Lobkowitz.

Haydn op 77 no 2

Prince Lobkowitz had commissioned a set of six string quartets of which only two were completed: Haydn struggled with no 3 and never finished it. He was losing his powers during the final nine years of his life and Roger Parker suggested that, composing as he did, he needed to hold the whole piece in his head and was no longer able to do so.  However, with op 77 no 2, Haydn’s range of musical invention was unabated and shows the ingenuity of expression he had developed over a period of nearly 40 years composing string quartets.

Beethoven op 18 no 4

Before 1794 when Haydn left for one of his visits to England, Beethoven was briefly his pupil to learn counterpoint. The tuition was not welcomed by Beethoven who parted with his teacher on bitter terms.  There is however clear evidence in this quartet of Beethoven’s study of Haydn’s quartets; and it is known that he copied out a couple of Mozart’s quartets as a means of studying them.  Roger Parker pointed out that Beethoven may have used percussive chords in this quartet in an iconoclastic way which Mozart and Haydn would have found disconcerting, but they were a surface device and, far from being forward-looking, the form of the quartet, and its place in a group of six, make it clear that it was harking back to the eighteenth century.  Beethoven may have had wild hair, but at this stage in his career he was still fundamentally conventional.

I found it enormously helpful to have my mind focused on a piece of music by such an introduction and then to hear it played. The Badke Quartet, with guest cello player Philip Higham, gave fine performances of each piece as we have come to expect of these old friends of Cratfield, even if the articulation of Charlotte Scott, the first violin, was not always clear.  Listening to music as I grow older, I value increasingly the commitment of musicians, the venue in which the performance takes place and being part of an informed audience.  I am grateful that those desiderata are fulfilled so often and so abundantly at Concerts at Cratfield.  And now I know that my enjoyment can be further enhanced by such inspiring introductions, which also serve to provide space round the music.

Jeremy Greenwood