THE NAVARRA STRING QUARTET
MAGNUS JOHNSTON: First violin
MARIJE JOHNSTON: Second violin
SASCHA BOTA: Viola
BRIAN O’KANE: Cello
The Sanctuary, Queen’s Cross Church, Aberdeen
Monday 14thJanuary, 2019
Formed at the Royal Northern College of Music in 2002, the Navarra String Quartet have gone on to build an international reputation as one of the most dynamic and exciting string quartets on the concert circuit today. They have recently made one change to their original line up as Sascha Bota has taken over from Simone van der Giessen as the viola player of the Quartet.
Their programme for this, the fourth of this season’s six concerts in the current Aberdeen Chamber Music Concert series, was an inspiring one. It opened with the Fourth of Five String Quartets by the Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks. The Navarra Quartet have recorded the first three Quartets by Vasks on the Challenge Classics label. For those three recorded quartets along with the Fourth, they had worked closely in tandem with the composer, so we were likely to hear a truly authentic performance, and so on Monday, that is precisely what we got. Not being familiar with this particular work, I went on the ‘net’ to find another performance and was not particularly impressed. No names, no pack drill. From the very opening of the first movement played by the Navarra Quartet however, a pizzicato note from Marije Johnston melting into a stratospherically high sustained note from Magnus Johnston, I realised that I was in for totally different sort of performance, one in which the balance of all four instruments was as near perfection as possible, such that every one of the instruments throughout the work could be heard with perfect clarity while at the same time, the blend of instrumental colours melted together to bring out the full expressive music painting in each one of the very different movements, just as the composer had intended.
The first movement entitled Elegy had a kind of weightless clarity and continuity not entirely unlike some of the music of Arvo Pärt, a composer from a neighbouring country. Trills, swoops and tremolos gave the music its unique colours and in this performance, melody was allowed to shine through as well.
There were two movements, the second and fourth, labelled ‘Toccata’, faster and full of intense and energetic playing. These provided a startling contrast with the slower movements, numbers one, three and five. There was a difference between the toccatas, the first being more edgy and incisive, the other having a stronger melodic basis.
The third movement, Chorale, lived up to its title, the harmonic playing of the strings proving deliciously attractive. The final movement entitled Meditation, recalled some of the ideas of the first with its swoops melting into harmonic contrasts. This was, I thought, a splendid performance, quite different from the two dimensional, monochromatic one I had listened to that afternoon. The performance by the Navarra Quartet was in full glorious string colour and definitely three dimensional. I was of course hearing a live performance and not on the little speaker of my iPad. And that surely is why we go to live concerts, isn’t it?
The second Quartet in the programme was much better known. It set the seal on the finest playing that the Navarra Quartet had prepared for us. This was another full colour performance although in this piece, the colours were more delicately muted, perfect for a work that has been labelled impressionistic. It was Ravel’s Quartet in F.
The four movements contrast strongly but a thematic bond unites them too and the Navarra Quartet brought out that very clearly. All four movements, but most especially the first, are shaped with a kind of gentle breeziness in the approach to rhythm. It is as if a light French summer breeze is bending or blowing the heads of grasses. Not at all like the winds we get in Scotland or those depicted in the Symphonies of Sibelius. There were fine moments of impassioned playing in this first movement along with gentler passages and more than once, I was impressed by the really beautiful playing of Sascha Bota on viola along with the first violin while the second violin was teamed with the cello.
The second movement ‘Assez vif’ was precisely that and moving along, ‘Très rythmé’ as well. The slower section was melodically very attractive as was the following movement marked ‘Très lent’ it was delightfully honeyed.
The finale was, yes, ‘Vif et agité’ in other words feisty and played with admirable intensity and energy and with that special breeziness regarding the rhythmic delivery that runs through the entire piece.
The final work in the performance was more firm footed with structure at its very heart but since Schubert is from the Romantic period the Navarra Quartet added considerable colour to his Quartet in d minor D 810 op. Posth. They did this with careful attention to variations in tempo and dynamics. The sweep, freedom and panache they gave to the opening movement made it follow on particularly well from Ravel’s Quartet.
The Navarra Quartet brought extra elements of colour and contrast to the variations of the second movement which are already written into the music by Schubert himself.
The Scherzo was lively and exciting and then the finale went way beyond that – to quote from Monday’s excellent programme note: “a dance of death, a mad tarantella, which whirls to a prestissimo conclusion’. Right on Lydia, right on Schubert and right on the Navarra Quartet!