by Alan Cooper

Monday, 14 January 2013

The Navarra Quartet drew a gratifyingly large audience to the Cowdray Hall considering the discouraging weather. The intrepid audience was warmly rewarded with a programme of thoroughly engaging and fascinating music including two of the most fresh and imaginative quartets from the core classical repertoire – one each by Haydn and Beethoven as well as a work by the little known contemporary Latvian composer Pëteris Vasks. His Quartet No. 3 in Monday’s wonderfully intense and atmospheric performance by the Navarra Quartet will have won him numerous new followers if comments by people leaving the Hall after the concert are anything to go by.

The three Quartets sat remarkably well together. Haydn’s Quartet in C Op. 33 No.3 is nicknamed The Bird. Its opening movement is spiced with many bird-like effects as is the trio of the Scherzo and there is a suggestion of something similar in the sheer flurry and flutter of the Finale as it was played on Monday. In the final movement of the Quartet No. 3 by Vasks, stratospheric harmonics also suggested birdsong. Beethoven’s Quartet in Eb Op. 74 was composed in the year of Haydn’s death and may have been a tribute to him. The elegiac Adagio of the Beethoven Quartet also found something of an emotional echo in the impassioned music of the Adagio of the Quartet by Vasks. But there were a further two features that linked the three pieces together, the first being the stylistic innovation that all three composers brought to quartet writing each in his own day and the excitement and intensity that the Navarra Quartet brought to their performance of all three works.

At the opening of the Haydn Quartet, pianissimo birdsong opened out into powerful crescendos certainly suggested something of the dawn chorus. I had never heard this contrast in dynamics played as strongly before. The Scherzando was Haydn’s most unusual contribution to the format sounding not just warm on the lower strings but soothingly gentle was well- something not normally found in a scherzo.. The trio section brought back the idea of bird calls which the two violins had also created so well in the previous movement. Haydn’s Adagio matched those of the other two quartets in both its melodic and imaginative harmonic colours. In the finale, the players of the Navarra Quartet gave us their most wonderfully precise and intense playing.

The opening section of the Beethoven Quartet, Poco adagio, was played in a darkly portentous manner interrupted by dramatic chords. The following Allegro was sunnier at first but soon developed more complex shades of light and darkness in this thoughtful and compelling performance. The marvellous pizzicato effects which were seamlessly passed across the different instruments only to reveal their full structural significance at the close of the movement were quite spectacular.

The fiery intensity of the playing was taken up again in the Scherzo which followed the beautiful elegiac Adagio featuring impressive playing by first violin Magnus Johnston.

The sheer variety of string colours throughout the Quartet No. 3 by Vasks was amazing. The contrast between the suggestion of religious stained glass colours in the opening movement, the whirling folksiness of the second and the impassioned emotion of the Adagio held my attention throughout every note. This led into a Finale that harked back to all the previous music before ending in an especially satisfying atmosphere of tranquillity. It left me wanting to hear more of this composer’s music – and then as we left the Cowdray Hall, the snow had begun to melt as well!

Navarra Quartet review