Conway Hall, home to an ethical society of the same name, hosts a venerable tradition of Sunday chamber music concerts. From their website: “Founded in the 1880s, our chamber music concert series is the longest-running of its kind in Europe.” This week’s programme, An Equal Music: Voices in Dialogue, was an exploration of counterpoint. The players were the Albion Quartet, a new group comprised of young musicians with a penchant for winning awards.
Somewhat unfamiliar with the area, I managed a twenty-minute circle around the square. So I was absent for most of Bach’s The Art of the Fugue (BWV 1080 Contrapunctus 1), the framing piece for the evening. It is the archetype of the genre – and a brilliant one at that, judging from what I did get to hear. The quartet’s performance seemed an animated, almost garrulous conversation: it also looked like quite a lot of fun too. Violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen’s virtuoso asides deserve a mention, although all four were excellent.
Haydn’s Quartet in C (Op. 20 No.2) was a darker, more introspective piece. For me, the performance recalled the themes and emotive vocabulary of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The Moderato began slow and pleasant, the cello pealing out wide and warm. By contrast, the Agadio wracked and bellowed with a implacable, immolating fury. Upon their instruments it was as if the players were struggling against a raging storm. Subsiding into anguish and lamentations, Rosalind Ventris’s viola was given wide berth to froth and wail. For the Menuetto the players briefly became one instrument, rendering the drone and tones of the Scottish bagpipes. The finale commenced with a madcap tumble of warm and boisterous melodies, descending into a darkly passionate send-off.
Schumann’s Quartet in A Minor made a jump, both chronologically and stylistically, with a looser thematic coherence. The meandering, cyclical Allegro waxed harmonious before plummeting like Icarus into discord. The Scherzo took a stirring martial turn, a galloping melody overlain with staggered, tremulous rhythm. It was a marvellous display of discipline and verve. Having awed and stunned, the Adagio follows with a sonorous, beatific theme; for a moment I was reminded of Sunday choir at the Sourohz Diocese cathedral. Just before lulling the audience to sleep, the Presto perked up with a lively pastiche of themes and motifs. Here cellist Nathaniel Boyd took the lead with powerful, repeated flurries, an engine driving forward the group towards the finish line. This was my favourite piece of the evening and – judging by the loud applause – was the best received.
The final piece was the Quartet in A Minor by William Walton, a mid 20th century work. Compared to the preceding masterpieces, it could have been pallid. Yet I think the Albion Quartet successfully captured its imaginative heart. The Allegro was an eddy of weird sounds – a strange, ethereal recall of Schumann. The Presto was a loose, almost free-form section – the four seemed more bebop band than chamber quartet. The Allegro molto reprised and exaggerated this theme, recalling folk or even bluegrass, even down to the slapping of bowstrings. In this sparser, almost organic style Walton’s piece was a nice counterpoint to the earlier Bach.
This was an excellent evening with a great selection of pieces, thematic yet individual and interesting. It was also a showcase for the talented Albion Quartet. Demonstrating both material mastery and a interpretive vitality in their performances, I hope to see more of them in the future.