Monday 20th February 2017
The fifth concert in our current season was a particularly fine one. It was given by the four vital young performers who make up the Piatti Quartet. The first half of their programme consisted of three quite unusual, brilliant and thoroughly enjoyable works. The opening quartet being by Haydn, you might ask me why I consider it unusual. Well it really was. If you were not familiar with it, you might not think many sections of it were by Haydn at all, especially the second movement, marked Adagio. This was Haydn’s Quartet in C Major, Op. 20 no. 2. Notable in the opening movement, Moderato, was the breezy chugging rhythmic accompaniment supplied for the other instruments by the viola. This was a feature that punctuated much of this movement. The playing was relaxed and quite delicate switching for the opening of the development section to splendidly lively even fiery playing in this performance. The Piatti Quartet was already beginning to impress.
What followed was the extraordinary second movement, Adagio. It began with powerful unison playing by the whole quartet before moments of delicate orchestral playing punctuated by powerful emphatic chords. Today’s excellent programme note described it as a “darkly imaginative operatic scene without words” and it was that exactly. There were scene changes created by the different string textures, full of dramatic import and even an aria for first violin. Haydn was surely bringing something new and unexpected into string quartet composition.
The Menuetto was quite bright and breezy with something of an open air feel to it in the Piatti’s performance. There was a sense of the scene being clouded over in the trio section moving to the minor mode.
The finale was a masterful four subject fugue much of which was played with a delicious lightness of touch before the conclusion in which the players were obviously rejoicing in the music.
The work that followed opened an even wider vista of string quartet writing before our ears. The Quartet no. 1 by Joseph Phibbs was a special commission from the young composer by the Piatti Quartet. Although officially in five movements, many of these are further sub-divided with four duos for different combinations of instruments interspersed within the movements. None of these was overlong and so did not shatter the idea of string quartet writing. They allowed for an amazingly wide range of colourful blendings of string tone. What struck me above all listening to this piece was the sheer originality of Phibbs’s writing. There was perhaps just a hint of eastern European harmonic textures towards the end of the work but so much of the music did not sound like anything else. It was fresh, tonal and made very attractive and intriguing listening. Every one of the players was given his or her chance to shine. They all made the most of it in this dazzlingly fine performance. Several people in the interval and after the concert asked me about Phibbs. They wanted to know more about him. The Piatti Quartet are to record the work in April. When it is released I will certainly be up for it.
The third work in the first half was also unusual. The Spanish composer, Joaquin Turina was born in Seville in 1882. La Oración del Torero op. 34 was originally composed for a quartet of lutes but the string quartet version works particularly well. The Toreador’s Prayer was inspired by the image of a bullfighter praying alone in the moments before entering the arena. It was very colourful and atmospheric music with the sounds of the arena, the crowds and the music suggested in the middle of the piece before the idea of prayer wins over. The Piatti gave a very luscious performance of this piece with really glossy string playing – something that was carried over into the second half of their performance.
The Quartet in c minor by Brahms, op 51 no. 2 presents Brahms writing at his most harmonically rich. What emerged in this performance was the way in which the perfectly well-balanced ensemble playing of the Piatti Quartet put across this music so beautifully. I had already been impressed by the viola player in the Haydn Quartet but in the first movement of the Brahms his energetic scurrying that underlined the rhythm was delicious and later on in the movement Brahms gives him the chance to lead off the glossy melodic tunes as well. The dark chording of the second movement was wonderfully well balanced and here the cellist was given her chance to shine – and indeed she did. The third movement featured attractive solos played by cello and viola and of course first violin. The music had the rhythmic wafts of a summer breeze. The Finale once again had Brahms delivering his most generous harmonic writing with the Piatti Quartet’s sumptuous ensemble playing rising magnificently to the occasion, topping off a performance that was satisfying in every respect.