THE ARCADIA STRING QUARTET
Monday, 12 October 2015
It is a couple of years since the Arcadia String Quartet were in Queen’s Cross Church to play for Aberdeen Chamber Music Concerts. They made a memorable impression on the audience on that occasion so a large crowd turned out to hear Monday’s performance of quartets by Mendelssohn and Bartók along with the UK premiere of a work by Razvan Metea, a Romanian composer who studied at the Gheorghe Dima Music Academy, the same institute where the Arcadia Quartet was formed in 2006.
Metea’s Four Bagatelles on Romanian Folk Music was composed as part of his student composition studies and these pieces are mature in inspiration, both fascinating and technically arresting. They fitted into Monday’s programme perfectly, particularly with Bartók’s Quartet No. 4 in C to close the concert. Metea’s Four Bagatelles uses a similar blending of folk inspiration with string writing that reaches out to encompass new sound worlds.
The first of the Bagatelles was spiky with more than a hint of serialism about it but the folk inspiration, in song and especially dance was revealed more and more clearly until it really took over in the fourth and final Bagatelle. There were lots of surprises and loads of fun on the way, from simple effects like a low pedal note on cello mirrored later by a high one on viola. Hand claps, foot stamps and vocalisations were all part of this imaginative mix taking Metea’s sound palette a lot further than Bartók’s. It certainly made us all sit up, listen and pay attention; the perfect musical aperitif to prepare us for the following piece, Mendelssohn’s Quartet in f minor, Op. 80.
Mendelssohn’s Quartet opened with a swirling vortex of string sound that was a precursor of a movement that alternated fury and despair with a sadness that was expressed with richly melodic fluency especially in the lovely playing of leader Ana Török. The sense of emotional tension in the piece was delivered with real passion by all four players.
The buffeting rhythms of the second movement depicted an excess of grief but the Adagio suggested an attempt by the composer to come to terms with the death of his sister which was the motive force behind the work. The splendid control of varied dynamics in the Adagio by the players expressed so much of the emotional charge of the music.
The sheer intensity of the Quartet’s playing really paid off in their interpretation of the Finale marking this as one of the most unrestrained outpourings of emotional music in all the literature. This power and intensity that marked Mendelssohn’s music emerged in more positive terms in Bartók’s Quartet No. 4. Here it came through as thrilling verve and vitality and this in an admirably precise and clearly focused performance.
This Quartet by Bartók is brim full of special string effects. Many of these were inspired by what with folk fiddlers were possibly no more than passing gestures but Bartók has seized upon these and made them a central part of his musical language in this piece. The second movement for instance though softly muted and skeletal is definitely a scherzo as the programme note suggested and was suitably hard driven by the Arcadia players.
The cello and later the first violin sang folk-like against rather unearthly chords murmured by the other players in the slow movement marked Non troppo lento. The fourth movement used a whole litany of pizzicato effects including guitar strums on cello and the famous Bartók pizzicati which he was credited with inventing. This proved that pizzicato playing is capable of as many different colours as any bowed playing.
If the final Bagatelle of Metea’s piece was where the folk influence really shone through, the same was true of Bartók’s Quartet. Here dance was the thing, so fast and so furious that the playing of the Arcadia Quartet really took fire. It was incandescent.
A long enthusiastic ovation from Monday’s audience brought forth another delightful surprise. We had enjoyed modern and contemporary quartet music and now the Arcadia players took us right back to the very birth of the string quartet with the Adagio from Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 1 No. 1. The misty smiles on the faces of many in the audience was testimony to how much they appreciated the Arcadia Quartet’s delicious playing of this special encore.