Concert Review

Astaria String Quartet
Lion Ballroom, Leominster
6 April 2014

An Espressivo promotion

In Leominster’s Lion Ballroom, last Sunday afternoon, we arrived at the nub of things, got down to the nitty gritty.  After piano recitals, instrumental duos, song recitals, and the rest, we came to the String Quartet.

Where did Beethoven turn when he had exhausted the potential of his Broadwood piano, with variation upon variation, the ascent in excelsis of the Opus 111 Arietta, the fleeting enigmas of the last Bagatelles, the screaming sopranos of the Choral Symphony?  What musical form so challenged even the genius of Mozart, when he went head to head with Haydn?  Yes, the String Quartet.  

The youthful Astaria Quartet, on Sunday, gave us no Beethoven, nor Mozart.  But, for starters, we had Haydn, the inventor of the form.  Perhaps the quartet’s leader had a wiser head than she knew on her young shoulders, when she diffidently said that she preferred Haydn to Mozart.  There spoke the true quartet player. But neither apologies nor comparisons are necessary - Haydn, for ever the symphonist, in love with ideas, building his music from tiny bricks, seeing how high and how far he can get; vying with Mozart, the opera composer, in love with humanity, fashioning edifices of melody as perfectly poised as a house of cards. Truly did Salieri say in ‘Amadeus’ - “Remove one note and the structure collapses”.  How fortunate that we do not have to choose - we have both.

Your scribe grew up with the Amadeus, the Griller, the Hollywood, and the Budapest; so when he says this is a youthful quartet, that should not be taken as implying immaturity.   The technical assurance of these (comparatively) young players is astonishing - the care taken, for instance, with their tuning is very reassuring.  They have clearly - and audibly - played together, and listened to each other, for long enough to take in their stride the difficulties and challenges of this repertoire.

And they let the music speak for itself, without fuss or personal ‘interpretation’; and both the Haydn and the Schumann quartets benefitted hugely from that.  Haydn does not need to have his ingenuity, his wit, pointed out: and Schumann has quite enough emotion, drama, and romance of his own without adding any more of the players’ own.  As a result, your scribe marvelled more at the Haydn than at its interpretation; and enjoyed the Schumann much more than he had expected to.

Then came the interval - which perhaps needs watching:  local audiences do welcome intervals as an opportunity to catch up with friends and conversation, and promoters might try to get them back in their seats for the second half before the impact of the first half has worn off. A good recital is an organic whole: each element leads to the next, and is coloured by what goes before and after.

The Janacek so-called ‘Kreutzer’ quartet was perhaps the high point of the afternoon, both in terms of the quality of writing and performance.  Would it have been ‘fairer’ to the Smetana to have put it before the Janacek?  Programme-building is a tricky - and quite subjective art: and following Haydn with Schumann some might regard as a bit tough on Schumann!

But this was an afternoon of fascinating music, beautifully performed, with all the players making the most of their individual moments in the sun.  (No wonder Haydn and Mozart preferred to sit in the violist’s seat.)

This has been a very successful first season of Sunday afternoon recitals intended to build up use of and support for the Lion Ballroom.  One hopes the organisers and promoters feel their hard word was worthwhile - and that they have not bankrupted themselves in the process.  And that they will take up the struggle again next season.

There are, of course, issues that might be addressed.  The Lion Ballroom is a lovely setting, and one must be grateful to the Heritage Lottery Fund that made its restoration possible, and paid for the Steinway piano that is of just the right scale for the venue.

However, the architectural restoration may be aesthetically accurate and lovely on the eye; but storage heaters are designed to be left on and to build up a store of heat.  For intermittent use they are less satisfactory: one must come well-coated, or prepared to shiver if autumn, winter, and spring temperatures defy Global Warming and behave as they usually do.

The Ballroom, though well suited in its scale, character and atmosphere for chamber music, is also less than ideal on the ear, due to the predominance of glass and plaster in the walls, and to the bare hardwood floor.   The piano, on such a floor, can be over-resonant. The powers-that-be, while preserving the authenticity of the room, might see if there is a benefit from simply putting a piece of carpet under the instrument, if only when it is to be used in concert.  More ambitiously, some tapestries or curtains in the long wall’s panels  (a commissioning challenge for local artists?) might be considered.

There is an excellent case to be made for chamber music being heard ‘In The Round’:  it being in essence domestic in scale. Avoiding the Us and Them division of platform and ranks of seats is achieved by putting the players in the middle of the audience.  On the other hand, audiences like to see as well as hear the performers, and having them all on the same level restricts the view.  A Peter-and-Paul situation!

In this instance, putting the quartet along the main wall of the hall, with the audience in a shallow sickle around them, works well for greater intimacy between players and listeners.  However, it means that the sound bounces off the opposite wall, the shorter distance away; and those sitting directly in line can have an impression of the music that is brighter and sharper than the musicians would ideally wish.

When one thinks of the problems that beset the acoustics of the Royal Festival Hall from its opening and for many years afterwards, and that demanded the most sophisticated engineering solutions - and a huge amount of money - answers to the Ballroom’s challenge can only be limited, and on a suck-it-and-see basis.  But some further experimenting by management and promoters should be encouraged. 

Nonetheless, so far, so very good.

Peter Williams

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