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Concert review: Quartetto Rossi, 31 July 2017

Quartetto Rossi at Cratfield
Quartetto Rossi at Cratfield

A ‘pop-up’ quartet, when it has been chosen as thoughtfully as this, can play very well and somehow with an extra charge. When it became clear that the London Haydn Quartet were unable to play on 31 July, tickets had already been sold and Philip Britton had to find a replacement – preferably one that played on early instruments. Jonathan Byers, known to Cratfield as the cellist of the Badke Quartet, also plays ‘his other cello’ in period ensembles and was able to gather three colleagues to form a quartet.

It was evidently a really happy band and they played well together. Michael Gurevich, who would have been playing second violin with the London Haydn Quartet, for this concert played first violin. (Quartetto Rossi was chosen as the three men are redheads and, though Simone Jandl didn’t fit the description, Jonathan has a red beard!)

As music in the nineteenth century was played in ever larger spaces, more volume was required from the string instruments and their construction changed to provide extra strength; gut strings were wound with metal wire and and a new style of playing emerged.

The Quartetto Rossi were playing instruments with gut strings, the cello supported between the knees as it has no spike; they used an earlier style of bow held differently and they played with an almost complete absence of vibrato. The result is a warmer, softer sound: Nikolaus Harnoncourt described it as ‘quiet, but with a sweet sharpness’. The lack of vibrato is quite noticeable and demands greater accuracy in pitching notes.

The set of six string quartets op 20 Haydn wrote in 1772 were the culmination of twenty years’ experience of writing baryton trios, trio sonatas and two earlier sets of string quartets. As Donald Tovey put it: ‘with op 20 the historical development of Haydn’s quartets reaches its goal; and further progress is not progress in any historical sense, but simply the difference between one masterpiece and the next.’ Haydn was devising ways of valuing each of the four instruments equally, not treating one or two as soloists with an accompaniment. We heard op 20 no 3 of this set: I was delighted to hear it with fresh ears though it had been played at Cratfield by the Navarra Quartet in 2010 (on modern instruments).

The concert had started with a quartet Haydn wrote 18 years later in 1790, op 64 no 1. This quartet was familiar, though it hadn’t been played before at Cratfield.

The final quartet was one of the six quartets that Mozart dedicated to Haydn, K 428. It was written in about 1784, so almost exactly between the two Haydn quartets we had heard before the interval. I don’t remember hearing one of the Mozart ‘Haydn’ quartets in the same programme as a Haydn quartet and my initial reaction was a feeling that, in direct contrast, the Mozart sounded more assured. This was rather a setback for me as I had previously thought of myself as a committed Haydn enthusiast. Perhaps it was just that I was more familiar with the Mozart.

What was a bigger challenge was the sparing use of vibrato. Though I have several recordings of Quatuor Mosaïques playing Haydn quartets, almost all the recorded and concert performances of string quartets I have heard have been played on modern instruments. The Quartetto Rossi played with impressive ensemble and enthusiasm and one knew that this was much closer to the sound heard by Haydn and Mozart, but I still look forward to hearing performances of string quartets, even early ones by Haydn, on modern instruments. Nonetheless, the fine playing of the Quartetto Rossi convinced me that we would benefit from hearing more performances on instruments contemporary to the music being played.

Jeremy Greenwood

6 August 2016