Concert Review

St Petersburg String Quartet
Stanbrook Abbey, Callow End, nr Malvern
13 October 2013

Co-promotion between the Autumn in Malvern Festival and Espressivo

ONCE again the Autumn in Malvern Festival has scored a triumph, and once again it has involved the Russians.

Last year Leeds Piano Competition winner Sofya Gulyak gave a dazzling display of virtuosity, and this year at Stanbrook Abbey the splendid acoustics of the Thompson Great Hall reverberated with the rich sonorities of the magnificent St Petersburg String Quartet, making their third Autumn Festival appearance.

It being Benjamin Britten’s centenary year, they opened their programme with his stylish arrangement of Purcell’s celebrated G-minor Chacony before performing his String Quartet No.2, a telling masterpiece composed in the shadow of a tour of war-torn Germany that had deeply affected Britten.

I was told the St Petersburg ensemble learned the work especially for the occasion, but I found that hard to believe, so profoundly did they probe the work’s emotional depths and so skilfully did they measure up to its formidable technical demands. One word describes both the work and its performance: stunning!

The second part of the concert continued with Britten in a lighter mood.

Composed when he was in his early 20s, the Three Divertimenti didn’t go down too well with the staid musical establishment of their day. They still startle the modern ear with their daring wit, but they are also extremely enjoyable.

Proceedings concluded in similar vein, but back on the St Petersburgs’ home ground, with superb renditions of Shostakovich’s light-hearted Quartet No.1 and his ever-entertaining Two Pieces.

The St Petersburg Quartet are currently touring the UK, but although they offered this programme to other provincial concert societies, such bodies have found it too daring and have replaced the Britten with conventional 19th century classics. They will be missing something truly exceptional. Thank goodness Autumn in Malvern knows better.

John Rushby-Smith

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