REVIEW: Navarra String Quartet’s Coffee Concert

TWO DUTCH women and two Englishmen make up the now 10-year-old Navarra Quartet.

The two nationalities sit well together, the Dutch keenly attuned to English despite their Germanic-sounding language, and on the wavelength of the music from both their neighbouring nations.

In such a context, the English work they played eclipsed the German in this performance in the chamber music series run by Strings Attached with The Dome.

Contrary to the order outlined in Chris Darwin’s consistently enjoyable and enlightening programme notes, they started with Benjamin Britten’s troubled third and final quartet, ahead of Johannes Brahms’ first.

Magnus Johnson, the Navarra’s first violin of only the last 18 months, felt that to have finished with the Britten would have sent the audience away with hearts in their boots.

We will never know but the Brahms work threw the Britten into favourable relief. Both are serious works, given intense performances here by Johnson, along with animated second violinist Marije Ploemacher, attentive violist Simone van der Giessen and sensitive cellist Nathaniel Boyd.

Brahms, the eternal romantic classicist, began his first quartet, as he had begun his first symphony, under the same shadow of Beethoven’s final musical utterances in those forms.

Living in the same city, Vienna, he felt he had to prove himself a substantial successor and, like his own C minor Symphony, this C minor Quartet, sets out unsmilingly.

Britten had different things not to smile about.

A heart problem was relieved but unsolved by surgery.

In the process a minor stroke curbed his creativity and although this was revived, principally by the inspiration of cellist Misitslav Rostropovich and singer Janet Baker, his last holiday, two years after his operation, which had followed completion of his final opera, Death in Venice, was appositely spent in that Italian resort.

Britten embraced that mood.

Death pervades the quartet to the last note, where Britten, like Haydn in his Seven Last Words, assigns the final breath to a single instrument. Britten’s musical language lacks much of the harmonic depth, warmth and accessibility of the Brahms, yet its message was sharply more distinct and exacting — which rendered it more communicatively direct and comprehensible.

Enjoyable even, and as a live music experience it was among the highlights of this present Coffee Concert series.

In the first of the five movements, Duets, the instruments pair up and one can imagine an ailing human in intimate dialogue and likewise, perhaps separately, his close acquaintances.

The second, Ostinato, has the insistence of the inevitable. The third, Solo, features each instrument in a seamless, desolately beautiful threnody.

Burleque, a scherzo, has elements of stabbing bitterness and the finale, Recitative and Passacaglia (La Serenissima), gropes and treads heavily towards final sleep, with Britten seemingly composing as though looking down on himself from the ceiling.

Brahms, after his first quartet, lived to fight many another day, and to reach an autumn of tender compositional lyricism, even valediction, after a single life of self-determined happy freedom, despite his angst over Clara Schumann. Britten lived in an era unaccepting of his ilk, and if that took a toll, here it is.

Mortality is his concern and he seems to have a hood over his head.

Beethoven, in his last quartets was addressing the same but with a searching eye on the eternal and the yet incomprehensible. But that was a century before this.

Britten was of a differently harrowing time and, like his Russian contemporary Shostakovich, he here translates a lifetime of admittedly different adversity into the unique opportunity string quartet writing offers for intimate confession, outlets of anger or regret, and the revelation of confidences. And also creates something spellbindingly memorable.

On this evidence, the Navarra seem a serious quartet of artistes. Perhaps Shostakovich will emanate as effectively through their bows and strings in years to come.

They performed with seats rotated 45 degrees to offer the audience increased viewing, and the players themselves rotated between pieces to the same benefit, as in the principal of Music In The Round. Always desirable. These Coffee Concerts are an exceptional experience.

Review by Richard Amey

Navarra String Quartet – Coffee Concert, Brighton Dome Corn Exchange, Sunday January 8, 2012

Next Coffee Concerts (book through The Dome):

February 19: Endellion Quartet —Haydn Opus 71 No 3 in Eb, Mendelssohn Opus 44 No 2 in E minor

March 18: Kuss Quartet — Mozart No 19 in C K465 (Dissonance); Tchaikovsky No 1 in D Opus 11.