Monday 16th February 2015
This was the first concert in what will be our regular venue during the refurbishment of the Cowdray Hall. Chamber Music Concerts have been at Queen’s Cross before, most notably in November of 2013 for a performance by The Arcadia Quartet. I have nothing against the Cowdray Hall, it is a great venue and always made us feel welcome but I did feel after listening to the Arcadia and now to the Rubens Quartet that the Sanctuary at Queen’s Cross has just a little bit of an edge regarding acoustical clarity – or perhaps was it just that the Arcadia and the Rubens both happen to be really special?
The Rubens Quartet opened Monday evening’s performance with Beethoven’s String Quartet in D, op. 18 no.3. This Quartet has been described as a particularly “gentle” work for Beethoven and the Rubens Quartet lived up to this by giving us a marvellously light and delicate performance. The playing in the opening movement was amazingly transparent. Beethoven moves the thematic material round every one of the four instruments often batting the interest conversationally from one instrument to another and in today’s performance you could hear each of the instruments particularly clearly making the lines in contrapuntal passages really shine through.
This sense of clarity and sharing persisted through much of the beautifully lyrical slow movement and here, the delicacy of the playing paid dividends too.
The third movement marked simply Allegro is quite unique – as our programme note stated, “Is it a scherzo or a minuet? Professor Barry Cooper in his notes on the Quartet wrote, “Too fast for a minuet, too serious for a scherzo”. The result in the performance by the Rubens Quartet was almost mysterious – and utterly beguiling and I loved the sizzling string playing in the trio section.
I also particularly enjoyed the Quartet’s performance of the Finale – light, full of movement, bright and breezy. Although the music is not in any way at all like Schoenberg I feel that we could borrow the title of the final section of The Gurrelieder to describe this last movement of the Beethoven Quartet – “The Wild Hunt of the Summer Wind.
The Netherlands composer Joey Roukens is quoted as writing, “Listeners often note that my music doesn’t sound like “modern music” (to their surprise, pleasure or disappointment…). Actually I thought his piece “Visions at Sea” had quite a bit of modernity about it; just a suggestion of Arvo Pärt in the opening and closing sections and some fascinating upwards and downward swoops too. Mutes were used to colourful effect throughout quite a bit of the piece the use of traditional sea songs was brilliantly done, at one point as if we were coming out of the cold into a bar where everybody was joining in the song. Later the song, speeded up, was used to introduce the “storm section” and near the end it was brought back again in an almost ghostly fashion. I thought this was an eloquently descriptive piece – a real painting in music.
The Rubens Quartet’s final offering was a splendidly rhapsodic performance of the String Quartet in a minor op. 51 no. 2 by Brahms in which the cellist Joachim Eijlander stood out brilliantly whether in the pizzicatos of the opening movement or just singing out later on. All four players exploited the melodic richness of the Andante with marvellously intense playing. As in Beethoven’s Quartet, the third movement was fascinating – as the programme note said – contrasting a slower minuet with a faster scherzo in different time signatures.
The performance of the propulsive sections of the Finale was thoroughly exhilarating – it was as if the players were actually dancing along to the music in their seats. I hope not too many people went to the Cowdray Hall by mistake and then decided it was too late to get to Queen’s Cross. If they did, then I am sorry, because they missed a really great concert.