Monday, 10 February 2014

Review: Quartetto di Cremona at Live at LICA

Quartetto di Cremona at Live at LICA
Thursday, 6 February 2014
in the Great Hall, Lancaster University

Reviewed by Sally Ryde

Paganini, the first composer on the programme, wrote three string quartets but needn't have bothered, whereas the second composer, Fritz Kreisler, who wrote only one, should have bothered more.

Quartetto di Cremona
The performance of Kreisler’s solitary string quartet was the highlight of the evening for me. Composed in 1919, it is richly chromatic and very much reminded me of the film music of another Austrian, Franz Waxman, who would compose the score for Hitchcock’s ‘Rebecca’ (1940). The first movement (played here by Kreisler himself) certainly spirited me back to Manderley. Its dark and restless harmonies also brought to mind the late-Romantic work of a third fellow Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg - in particular, his ‘Verklärte Nacht’.

Interestingly, all three composers - Kreisler, Waxman and Schoenberg - found themselves in the 1930s in the midst of the mass migration of refugees seeking shelter from the social and political repercussions of the inter-war upheavals in Europe and a safer life on the other side of the Atlantic.

I think I might have preferred to take more time over pre-concert cake and coffee (more later!) than to have sat through the evening’s first item. Nicolo Paganini (born 1782) is reputed to have been the finest violin technician of his day but his first string quartet could be disparagingly described as “for solo violin accompanied by three other players”. Worse, the main artistic duty of the viola player was to add the 5th to the chord. I got the feeling that there might even be instructions now and again in the third movement like “embellish this line somewhat at this point to make it seem that I have given you a proper part to play”. No doubt my judgement is a little harsh but I did resort to mental stimulation through analysis of each movement’s musical form just to stay alert.

After the interval, we heard Schubert’s fine ‘Death and the Maiden’ quartet. It is amazing to think how much that composer achieved in such a short life: dead and gone after only 31 years! The quartet takes its name from an earlier Schubert song, the theme of which forms the basis of the quartet’s familiar second movement (played here by the Alban Berg Quartet).

All four movements are a treat to listen to but the Quartetto di Cremona’s rendition of the finale was breath taking. Marked ‘presto’, it was surely taken much faster and the performance of the closing ‘prestissimo’ coda may well have set a world speed record! Not only did the players play perfectly together throughout the movement, they raised the risk bar considerably by ignoring the straightforward two in a bar compound time and introducing instead numerous hesitations and subtle changes in tempo that made me struggle to find the beat at times.

The vigour of the ensemble’s performance was not wasted on the audience, who were ecstatic and clamoured for more. Possibly, the players were by then too exhausted to play an encore. Or maybe they thought it better to leave alone what had clearly been a successful conclusion to the evening. Whatever the case, a lot of people will have been whistling Schubert on the way home and possibly late into the night.

I do have one gripe. The Live at LICA CafĂ© and Bar does an excellent deal on a slice of delicious cake and a cuppa for £3. If you manage to arrive half an hour or so before the commencement of a concert, you can enjoy reading the programme or visiting with friends in the relaxed and visually pleasant surroundings of the bar and foyer. But you can forget that if, as has been the case a couple of times this season and was the case this time, seats are not pre-allocated.

I love concerts set out ‘in the round’. But when seating is not pre-assigned, two things happen. First, the astute begin to form a queue half an hour before the concert, knowing that they must be near the front when the doors to the hall open if they are to have any chance of getting a decent seat. Second, the less shrewd, arriving to find that all the good seats have already been taken, are compelled by the beautifully symmetrical but inappropriate seating plan to accept one of the 60% of seats set out behind two or more players.

All this needs an urgent re-think. We want to enjoy not only the concert but also a relaxed pre-concert cake and coffee.

S. Ryde


Concert Programme:
Paganini: String Quartet No. 1 
Kreisler: String Quartet 
Schubert: String Quartet No. 14 'Death and the Maiden'

Tickets were priced (web advance):  Adults £21.50, Concessions £18.50, Young person/student £7.50

Future musical events at Live at LICA: ‘What’s On

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