6th October 2014

The Castalian String Quartet was formed in London in 2010 and then in 2011 these vibrant young musicians won the Royal Overseas League Elias Fawcett Award given to “an outstanding chamber music ensemble”. On Monday, Aberdeen Chamber Music Concerts invited them to the Cowdray Hall to launch their 2014 -2015 season. Despite very inclement weather, a gratifyingly large audience turned out to hear them play quartets by Mozart, Ravel and Schubert.

Mozart’s String Quartet in Eb Major K428 is the third in a group of six quartets dedicated to Joseph Haydn and henceforth known as The Haydn Quartets.

The final movement with its teasing rhythmic hesitations in the opening theme followed by thrilling fast paced playing certainly suggested the witty playful spirit of Haydn. The two opening movements sounded more adventurous and forward looking in their harmonic language. Indeed there were moments in the second movement Andante con moto where the harmonies seemed to look forward to the music of Brahms (Third Symphony, middle of Second Movement for instance).

As Daniel Llewellyn Roberts suggested in his introductory comments, Mozart gives prominence to all four players in this quartet. The two violins at the opening of the quartet were important but the viola and cello took precedence later on. Nevertheless splendidly accomplished virtuoso playing from leader Sini Simonen still highlighted the importance of the first violin in the opening movement.

All four players gave a delicious account of Mozart’s harmonies in the second movement while the Menuetto had more of the stomping rhythmic emphasis of outdoor rustic dance music than ballroom elegance – another suggestion of the spirit of later composers when they made ländler take over from the minuet. The song-like trio had the merest suggestion of sadness in this performance which only served to highlight the joyous return of the rustic dance.

As I said already the finale, marked Allegro Vivace, was spirited and splendidly good humoured – a fitting conclusion to a thrilling performance.

The broad range of the Castalian Quartet was evidenced in the music which followed. Ravel’s Quartet in F could hardly be more different from the Mozart. Here was a performance where atmosphere was everything and the Castalian’s players really did have the feeling for it firmly in their grasp.

Light beautifully transparent playing captured the rhythmic capriciousness of Ravel’s opening music, like a summer breeze while luminous playing from Sini Simonen suggested sunshine melody.

At the opening of the second movement piquant pizzicato playing was followed and contrasted once again by the leader’s wonderfully glossy sound. The third movement profited from the darker tones of viola and cello. More nocturnal in its appeal it was given a sensitive and nuanced performance.

Marked Vif et agité by Ravel, the final movement certainly lived up to that with a sense of nervous excitement balanced once again by wonderfully sinuous playing.

Another very different exploitation of the string quartet medium was delivered by the Castalian’s performance of Schubert’s Quartet in d minor D 810 known because of the song tune on which Schubert bases a splendid set of variations in the second movement as Death and the Maiden.

Although this quartet is probably not meant as programmatic music surely the first movement with its violent shifts of mood is shaped very much like the unrolling of a narrative in which these different contrasting moods are nevertheless smoothly bound together. I felt the Castalian Quartet’s well thought-out performance captured both the contrasts and the continuity of the music to perfection. The variations of the second movement were splendid. The first violin was highlighted more than once while the cello, played powerfully and sensuously by Christopher Graves, was followed by a variation in which all four players demonstrated a surging energy that suggested an underlying menace in the music.

The Scherzo only slightly lifted the dark mood but it was driven irresistibly towards an unavoidable fate expressed in the whirlwind ride to the abyss that is the finale. It was indeed a dance of madness and death but it was also an opportunity for the musicians to demonstrate a tour de force of expressionist virtuosity – the sort of playing that wins prizes!

Castalian String Quartet review