THE ROXBURGH QUARTET

RACHEL SPENCER: First Violin

ANDREW LEES: Second Violin

FELIX TANNER: Viola

HELEN DUNCAN: Cello

THE SANCTUARY, QUEEN’S CROSS CHURCH, ABERDEEN

Monday 4th November, 2019

The second of this season’s six concerts promoted by Aberdeen Chamber Music Concerts was given by The Roxburgh Quartet formed in 2005 and based in Edinburgh. Their programme was an unusual and interesting one, well, at least in the first half which had the ‘Quartet no.1 in C Major op. 49’ followed by Samuel Barber’s only complete string quartet ‘Quartet in b minor op. 11’. I had never heard either of these quartets in live performance before. Many String Quartets programme Shostakovich but most often it is the famous number 8 so I was pleased to hear a live performance of the first Quartet. Second violinist Andrew Lees introduced the first part of the concert saying that Quartet Number 1 is representative of the composer’s style. Many critics claim that it is not. Actually there is truth on both sides of this opinion. Today’s performance by the Roxburgh Quartet settled on many of the Shostakovich archetypal sound qualities, his slightly angular melodies and the clarity and transparency of his instrumental placings. However there was a mellowness in the melodic lines, especially in the second movement, opened by the viola in song-like mood, that could be called romantic. In their delivery of the entire piece, the Roxburgh Quartet players captured the lightness of touch and the delicacy that appears less often in the composer’s later music. As the excellent programme note explained, Shostakovich himself wrote, ‘I visualised childhood scenes, somewhat naïve and bright moods associated with spring’, I thought that was expressed clearly in the Roxburgh’s performance. It is only in the final movement that the more trenchant rhythmical intensity that we recognise as a particular feature of Shostakovich’s quartet writing came firing through and yet at many points in this movement the lightness and delicacy of the Roxburgh’s playing was still there.

I am quite familiar with Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’ but today’s performance was the first time I had heard a live performance of the complete quartet from which it comes. The Adagio was used to great effect in the film ‘Platoon’ and it was played continuously on American radio after the assassination of JFK. In the US, it is popular as funeral music. It is very romantic in its immediate effect but did anyone else in today’s audience sense the influence of J. S. Bach within the music? 

The opening movement is quite episodic, moving from the unison first theme to the pastel shaded harmonies of the ‘hymn-like chorale’ described so aptly in today’s programme note. The viola stood out in this quartet as he had also done in the Shostakovich – great playing from Felix Tanner. At one point the music assumed a dance-like energy on first violin and viola, mirrored by the cello.

The finale is rather short, deriving from so much that had gone before, even in the undercurrent of the Adagio. It ended abruptly after swirling music for the ensemble.

Less unusual in the programming was the ‘Quartet in F Major Op. 59 No. 1’ by Beethoven sometimes referred to as the First Razumovsky Quartet. I was delighted by the little chug, chug rhythmic motifs beneath melodic passages played by first violin and cello. The eruption of fugal passages that gave the music an extra sense of drive was well done in today’s performance and I liked the way the music was passed across the players of the quartet – so nicely balanced.

I wonder if Anton Bruckner was inspired by the rhythmic stabbing of the second movement ‘sempre scherzando’ for his Scherzos? In this movement, the Roxburgh Quartet provided ample contrast between lighter and more forceful playing.

The slow movement made me think of the dark glassy surface of a lake with just the occasional stirrings and rippling created by moments of faster music from certain of the players. Towards the end of the movement the cello supported the melody with delightfully sonorous pizzicatos, like droplets of water into the lake?

In the final movement, Beethoven has great fun in creating the most lively variations of the Thème Russe included as a tribute to Count Razumovsky who had commissioned the work. There were fine strong chords and hard driven lively music, really fast moving with its many trills and today, a particularly fine and jolly performance from first violinist Rachel Spencer. 

Roxburgh Quartet – 4th Nov 2019: Review

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