ALEX ROBSON: Second Violin




Monday 10th February, 2020.  

The penultimate concert in the current season of Aberdeen Chamber Music Concerts was given by the Engegård String Quartet. They were formed in 2006 in the Lofoten archipelago in northern Norway. They drew one of the largest audiences this season to Queen’s Cross with their programme of Quartets by Mozart, Sibelius and Grieg. The programme note explained that the Engegård Quartet are renowned internationally for “Their bold, fresh interpretations of the classical repertoire combined with a deep attachment to their Scandinavian roots”. In every respect, regarding these words, we were not to be disappointed. Some of us will have remembered the Yggdrasil Quartet who for some years were stationed in Aberdeen.  They were known for their fiery energetic performances. The Engegård Quartet had that same dynamic spirit and razor sharp precision in their playing, and then some.

They began their performance with Mozart’s ‘Quartet in d minor K421. Several commentators have mentioned a certain melancholy that pervades this work. In today’s performance there were indeed moments, as later on in the Andante, when we were made aware of that, overall however, although this is a deeply serious work, it also has a vibrancy and energetic momentum that for me made it radiate optimism. This came out strongly in today’s performance by the Engegård Quartet. The playing of the cello for instance gave the music a lift throughout the work. There was often a delightful airiness in certain passages. The first violin had a lovely sweetness of tone in the first movement and in the development section, I was impressed by the precision of the contrapuntal playing.

The second movement Andante had a delightfully mannered dance feeling about it, almost balletic, I thought.

The minuet section of the third movement was played fast and with real vehemence, it had a certain sweep to it as well. The trio section with the first violin on top of pizzicato accompaniment was in contrast played with considerable gentleness. The variations in the finale brought the second violin and viola magnificently to the fore. Here was playing of particular energy that marked this quartet as a thoroughly positive sounding work.

“Voces Intimae”, the celebrated ‘Quartet op. 56’ by Sibelius was really special in today’s performance. More than once, in faster, lighter passages we heard the echoes of windswept Nordic landscapes. I sometimes imagine Sibelius at his desk while the wind sings round the eaves of his house or even under his door.

At the opening of the Quartet, the first violin and cello called to one another. As Juliet Jopling said in her introduction to the piece, we were taken on a journey through the Finland woods with the instruments conjuring up so many different impressions. The Vivace followed on with expert lightness in the playing. Then we were led into the emotional core of the Quartet. As Juliet promised, the pianissimo e minor chords were delivered splendidly. Smooth melody and strong singing harmonies were poured forth in this movement. The fourth movement was led off by the first violin with tremendous strength which was taken up with vim and verve by the rest of the quartet.

The finale was absolutely thrilling, it scurried, it galloped and I believe it won the audience over completely.

So far, this was brilliant, but I thought the ‘Quartet in g minor, op. 27’ by Grieg was better still. Grieg uses a melody from one of his songs throughout the Quartet. No wonder Liszt was impressed by the work. It comes close to his idea of ‘thematic transformation’ in so many ways. The song that Grieg uses is his setting of a poem by Ibsen, ‘Spillemaend’ which the internet translator tells me is ‘Fiddlers’ in English.

The poem tells of a young man who is in love with a beautiful young girl. He believes that if he can learn to play the fiddle with great virtuosity in Halls and Churches she will be seduced by him. To accomplish this, he summons up a water sprite who ‘plays to him straight from God’. Unfortunately while he is learning to master his art, the girl marries his brother and the final verse of the song goes,

‘In great churches and halls

I play all alone

and the sprite’s terror and songs

are never out of my mind.

The opening of the Quartet begins with the song played in rich harmonies with cutting energy. Then the melody is sung beautifully by the violin. As the programme note observes, it continues with fast scurrying music, moments of calm and violent interruptions. In fact an ever changing flood of instrumental colour.  Grieg uses variations in tempo, in dynamics and above all in string textures, not just in variations of the melody. The Engegård Quartet achieved the full range of instrumental colour just as Grieg would have wanted. The cello led off the second movement beautifully and later the first violin charged up the energy of the music splendidly. Here was string quartet writing and playing at its finest.

Enthusiasm and energy were powered up through the sections of the third movement. In the finale, the cello led off with a merry Italian tune which the quartet took up in an absolutely sizzling performance, the best ever.

A tsunami of applause brought forth a special encore from the quartet. It was a traditional song melody from Kvæfjord, arranged for string quartet by Bjørn Andor Draage, lovely melodic music and delicious playing!    

The Engegård Quartet – 10th February 2020: Review