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Concert review: Cavaleri Quartet + Bart LaFollette

This Sunday afternoon concert on 13 September 2015 was the final one of the six-concert season which Concerts at Cratfield put on at the beautifully compact and very old St Mary’s church, just outside the village, throughout the summer months on a fortnightly basis.  The 2015 season has been an outstanding success, with a variety of interesting programmes, committed performances and enthusiastic audiences.  But perhaps the best of all was left until last Sunday with a mouthwatering programme, including two string quartet masterpieces from different eras in the first half, followed after the interval by possibly the most beloved and celebrated string quintet (with two cellos) of the whole repertoire.  The damp weather did not lessen the anticipation of a satisfying musical experience and the church was absolutely full.

String quartets sound exceptionally good in the acoustics of the church; the Cavaleri Quartet were no exception to the high standards of quartet playing Cratfield audiences have been privileged to experience, season after season.  Although the quartet’s cellist, Reinoud Ford, was a guest of the group, his playing was outstanding throughout and the quartet had a togetherness vibe about them that communicated itself with relaxed pleasure to the audience.

The opening quartet was Mozart in C K465 (unusually, all three works in this concert were in the same key – C major).  The quartet is known as the ‘Dissonance’, as the opening introduction sounds like music from a much later period – unsettled and key-free.  The Cavaleris immediately created an otherworldly atmosphere of this strange opening and headed into the main allegro with playing of crisp rhythmic articulation.  The second movement’s andante cantabile was played in a stately flowing tempo, which was beautifully done.  Following a punchy menuetto and a lively trio section with some lovely cello playing, the finale’s allegro molto zipped along with a well chosen tempo, and full marks to the quartet for slightly speeding up the tempo for the coda , which made for an overall  well balanced satisfying performance of a superb quartet.

The Szymanowski Quartet no 1, much less well known than either the Mozart or the Schubert, is to my mind a fabulous piece by an underrated composer who wrote one of the greatest operas of the 20th century, King Roger – plus orchestral, choral and instrumental works of a hypnotic original quality, that go straight to the heart.  The quartet has a hugely difficult first violin part, playing continuous high notes above the bridge, especially in the first movement.  Martyn Jackson, the first violin, played them effortlessly and beautifully.  The first movement has a feeling in parts of longing – reminiscent of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The frequent indicated tempo changes were handled well and the double forte sections of the movement, plus the triple forte of the last bars, sounded magnificent in the Church’s acoustics, and it was hard to believe that only four string players were creating such an overwhelming effect!  The 2nd movement had some rich ripe playing – high 1st violin again, plus some lovely solo 2nd violin playing.  One small criticism would be that the score is marked attacca (no break) between the 2nd and 3rd movements, which the Cavaleri’s ignored; but maybe they made the decision to pause between the movements for technical or tuning reasons? The 3rd movement is more in the neo-classical style – whilst the first two movements have reminiscences of composers such as Scriabin, Richard Strauss and Debussy, the last movement is definitely in Bartók territory.  Again, some overwhelming triple forte chords towards the end of the quartet, which made one’s hair stand on end – but the work actually ends quietly in triple pianissimo.  A work, then, of huge contrasts in its short 20 minutes of playing time: beautiful lyrical sensual writing, interposed with great dramatic outbursts.  The Cavaleris were certainly more than up to the task and it certainly hit the spot!

Following the interval and the usual excellent tea and cake refreshments, we heard the climax of the concert, and possibly of the whole season – Schubert’s great C major string quintet D956 – with the added second cello.  Bartholomew LaFollette joined the quartet as the extra cello but actually played the 1st cello part; the quartet’s guest cellist, Reinoud Ford, played the 2nd cello part.  Perhaps because the principal four players were already warmed up by playing the first half, whilst the 2nd cellist was sitting it out on a damp afternoon, LaFollette seemed slightly ill at ease communicating with the other four players and was having problems tuning his instrument – but things soon settled down for an excellent performance of this much loved masterpiece.  What can one say about the piece that’s not already been said so many times?  I would just add that the world would be a poorer place without it.  The Cavaleris set a good opening tempo to the first movement’s allegro ma non troppo and played seamlessly into the gorgeous second subject melody.  Although it’s a long movement I was still disappointed that they did not observe the repeat of the opening section.  The development was played at high intensity – and by this time all five players were fully engaged with the music and with each other.  The players had the confidence to play the beautiful second movement opening theme with the utmost quietness and sustained intimacy, which made the dramatic middle section convey the ‘cry for help’, which often appears in Schubert’s late music, most effective.  The players brought out the ‘gemütlich’ melody of the third movement trio and slowed it down nicely to give it that authentic Viennese lilt, whilst the main scherzo was played with crisp sonority.  The finale, which has less angst than the previous movements, is nevertheless full of beautiful music and has a cracking finish.  I’m pleased that the Cavaleris distinguished between the più allegro and più presto final pages of this wonderful quintet and ended with an exemplary triple forte flourish.

We look forward to the 2016 season with great anticipation!

David Mintz