Saturday, 13 October 2012


The Joy of Music Festival 2012
London Chamber Orchestra String Quartet
Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall
Thursday (11 October 2012)

My second evening at this marvellous music festival in Hong Kong involves only string music, hence its title A Cascade of Strings. It is performed by the ensemble in residence, a string quartet formed by members of the London Chamber Orchestra. Its leader is violinist Andrew Haveron, the Concertmaster of The Philharmonia Orchestra, and had served as Guest Concertmaster of the Singapore Symphony earlier this year in its concert performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio.

He is also a confident and rather informal speaker, introducing each of the works in the programme in a totally approachable and effable manner. This concert, he explained, was an exploration of four great composers (whose surnames all happen to start with the letter B) in their early attempts at the string quartet form. It began with Benjamin Britten’s Three Divertimenti, composed in 1933, essentially wood shavings from a master’s work bench. A March, a Waltz and a Burlesque, each coloured with his typically dissonant, vigorous and sometimes humourous style. The variety of colours and shades, quirky shifts of dynamics, all came across in this breezy performance like a refreshing rush of mint to the palate.

Then came Beethoven with his first numbered quartet in F major (Op.18 No.1), introducing a major voice to the genre. The opening unison theme was delivered with an arresting and assertive demeanour, contrasted with the poignant and suitably sepulchral mood of the slow movement, described by the composer as Romeo and Juliet at the crypt. Here the build-up to its impassioned climax was totally moving one, with the silences between the notes playing as important a part as the notes themselves.

After that catharsis, the following movements were as light as feathers. Split second timing was still required in the brisk third movement, which could have been a Scherzo in the early symphonies and the upbeat spirit of the finale was totally disarming. Its rondo-like theme was a fast trickle of notes answered by three emphatic beats, typically Ludwig, was dispatched with an equally lusty fervour. Its earthiness was encapsulated in violist Joel Hunter’s infectious head-nodding and foot-stamping, which was quaint in a way, something more akin to a drummer in a rock band. More importantly, the quartet responded with a verve which showed that they love this music.

By this time, I had abandoned the idea of sitting in the stalls, instead making my way to the stage, placing myself within sniffing distance of the quartet. This arrangement was becoming my own private Ezterhaza, enjoying my private string quartet playing after-dinner divertissements for my own personal enjoyment. There should be no apologies for that!

The second half opened with violinists Haveron and Magnus Johnston only, to play a selection from the 44 Violin Duos by Bela Bartok. For the sake of variety, they chose not only from the first book, but a smattering from all the books, working from simple harmonies to more sophisticated and complex pieces. The first Teasing Song was simple enough for beginners, and the successive pieces became more and more interesting. The buzzing Mosquito Dance was certainly a first cousin to The Diary of a Fly from Mikrokosmos for the piano. The dances come from different lands of Eastern Europe, using the folk songs and dances of Hungary, Slovakia, Transylvania and Ruthenia. The Ruthenian Dance sounded just like those gypsy pieces, while the number called Bagpipes predictably had the drones. When we reached Pizzicato, we were already in the territory of Bartok’s famous Fourth String Quartet. The performances were simply delightful, with Haveron punctuating small sets of pieces with his helpful commentaries.

The evening closed with Brahms Second String Quartet in A minor (Op.51 No.2), a slightly more congenial piece than the originally programmed work, its predecessor in C minor. The overall tone of the work was more relaxed, but it still conveyed an element of tragedy with a muted tension and bittersweet melodies. The quartet brought out these qualities well, contrasted with the serenity of the slow movement and the busy scurrying in the third movement, not a true scherzo in the usual sense of the word. Like in the Beethoven, the finale was a swinging and energised dance, a Hungarian rondo delivered with searing intensity and great rhythmic precision.

The quartet, completed by French cellist Pierre Doumenge, has been a great asset to the festival. Although sounding like a group that has been playing together for the last thirty years, I was surprised to learn that the four musicians only assemble as an ensemble while in Hong Kong, contrary to their London origins. Is there a name for them rather than that generic (and rather boring) name, the LCO chamber group? Why not call them the Hong Kong Quartet of the London Chamber Orchestra? Or this ironic suggestion of mine: Quartet 1997?  

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