By Donald Judge
Yet another near capacity turn-out (and it’s not just Chamber Concerts but all the recent varied fare at the Arts Centre) is greatly encouraging. Suffice it to say that while the situation is improving, there are some venues and audiences still in a less happy place. That people can still choose to watch the live stream is icing on the cake.
The original Consone Quartet: Agata Daraškaite, violin; Magdalena Loth-Hill, violin; Elitsa Bogdanova, viola, and George Ross, cello had for this concert Kay Stephen substituting for Elitsa on viola. Kay is an acclaimed and experienced player, but how might such a change impact the performance, especially when the Consone play on “period” instruments and in as near to historical style as their research and imagination permits? The answer is that while string quartets of this quality rely on years of playing together (the Consone for seven years professionally) temporary or permanent changes of “staff” are not unknown. Each performance of a work is not something set in tablets of stone, however familiar, but an adventure, a journey of (re)discovery. Players of this calibre are supremely responsive and adaptable, revelling in the give and take of chamber music and interactions with colleagues. All much in evidence on Saturday night. It will have been an opportunity rather than a limitation. An “authentic” viola and bows were used: interpretive and stylistic details were assimilated. There was no change to the published programme.
The audience might not have noticed, but what they will have noticed before a note sounded is that the players came on stage with an instrument each and two bows. They may have noticed that the instruments lacked the metal adjusters that normally hold the strings to the tailpiece. All the tuning was achieved by the wooden pegs near the scroll. It was more frequent, often between movements, because gut strings (some with a gut core wound with metal) take more of a battering and don’t hold their pitch for as long as metal ones.
When the “historical performance” movement took off in the mid-20th century it applied mainly to Baroque music. It involved trying to sweep away decades if not centuries of performance practice when orchestras and choirs were much larger than originally intended. Instruments were modernised, and louder ones developed, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Speeds were sometimes, to today’s ears, turgid. The process of avoiding romantic excesses led some “authentic” interpretations to be almost mechanical and lacking expression: surely not the intention of composers whose music is as full of human and divine emotion as Bach and Handel. Pitch was sometimes lowered by around a semitone to match that of the 17th and early 18th centuries. Stringed instruments were re-strung with gut and Baroque bows introduced. Wind and brass instruments, often with smaller bores, gentler tones, and few if any keys, were reconstructed. Those from before the Baroque, like the cornett, had to be mastered almost from scratch. The best examples, for example Harnancourt’s Bach Cantatas, were both a revelation and a game-changer, even for non-period groups. It took a while for “historical authenticity” to reach Classical and Romantic music, and the differences are more subtle. But even now “period” performances of Beethoven and Brahms are much less frequent than on modern instruments. Most classical concerts will feature the much louder instruments of the past century, along with Steinway grand pianos that even Beethoven might have found hard to destroy as he battled to hear his own sonatas on a wooden-framed one. Recently, listeners to Radio 3 might have tuned in to hear what sounded like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, but something wasn’t quite right… Or maybe more right, as it was played on instruments that would have been current in 1912.
There are of course, no recordings to tell us how a Haydn Quartet sounded in the 1790s, but there are instruments that still work, or can be copied, accounts of performances, and treatises on how to perform, including ornamentation, though by Haydn’s time this was invariably written out. The Consone could only start with the notes Haydn wrote, use the sort of strings and bows – the lighter of the two – that Haydn would have been familiar with, and explore the possibilities, some of which are exclusive to those instruments and bows. As soon as the opening notes sounded, even though none of the rationale had been explained, the subtle differences were both evident and arresting.
There are, of course, sound recordings from the late 1800s on, that despite being low-fi, beset with extraneous noise, and sometimes taken at a speed to fit a movement or passage onto one side of a 78, reveal a great deal about how music sounded and was performed. One common expressive device that stands out is portamento, where especially singers and string players “glide” between certain melodic notes. Portamento is seldom notated, just as many Baroque composers assumed soloists would improvise their own trills and even add more virtuosic notes to the part. Portamenti are very noticeable in Elgar’s recordings of his own music: few modern conductors venture there. But the Consone ventured there frequently, even in the Haydn. It may have been the biggest surprise of the sound world they created. The audience may have reacted to it like Marmite. To this reviewer, it seemed entirely plausible, entirely natural, and not over-indulged. It could be that the next performances would have less or more of it, or in different places, such is the nature of musical interpretation.
The Haydn certainly lost none of its sprightliness, humour, and occasional flashes of darkness. Players of the 1790s would have found themselves in some very unfamiliar keys like D flat major / B flat minor, ones which the warm or slightly muted tones of gut strings played softly surely enhance. Like every Haydn quartet, this one is unique and the Consone captured its character to perfection.
The Fauré is a curious work, with meticulous form and counterpoint underpinning a seemingly meandering journey, like four friends on a country walk often taking their own separate ways before converging. Playing such relatively late music, albeit on instruments and with bows that are historically accurate, is a fairly new venture for the Consone. On Saturday evening’s evidence, it’s paying dividends and casting new light on the music. The relatively unfamiliar Fauré was made entirely coherent and convincing, the warm tones enhancing the experience. Debussy’s only quartet from 1893 is not just a masterpiece by any standards, but remarkably modern and forward-looking, pre-dating Ravel’s by ten years, and breaking or stretching many “rules” of harmony, form and texture. Although it’s very “French” and uses the transformation of cyclic themes at which César Franck was expert, it also has clear influences from Russia and from the Javanese Gamelan that so entranced the young Debussy. Chausson was to have been its dedicatee but expressed grave doubts about it. The traditionalist Saint-Saëns was scathing about any music by Debussy. Almost 30 years after Debussy’s quartet, Fauré eschewed in his what he surely saw as excesses in both Debussy’s and Ravel’s. But Debussy’s liberal use of pizzicato, mutes and other techniques are not mere sound effects. Everything in the work is calculated and planned to achieve a satisfying and closely argued musical whole. The Consone’s interpretation, with its vivid contrasts and tone qualities, in an ideal space, may be the closest we’ll hear to the performance Debussy envisaged. Few quartets feature such an extraordinary conclusion, and it was a thrilling end to an engrossing musical experience.