Oh No, Not Again!

Sacconi QuartetSpeaking as a reviewer, I’m beginning to get a little fed up with the Milverton Concert Society. They might at least give me a chance to carp a little – to allow me to have a dig at a mediocre performance or a less than top class artiste. (I’d love to be able to use W. S. Gilbert’s gloriously ambiguous greeting to an actor at the interval – “My dear fellow, good isn’t the word!”) But no, they keep on serving up the most amazing evenings, with performers of the highest calibre, and the most recent concert was no exception. The Sacconi Quartet, formed in 2001, presented a programme ranging across the years and different musical styles, to great effect.

There had been some difficulties before the concert, in that the violist Robin Ashwell had been very unwell – this curtailed their ability to rehearse and forced a programme change. In the event, the revised programme was still brilliant and most enjoyable. Starting with a rarity, in that it is by Puccini, a composer one would not normally associate with string quartets, the Sacconi played his short piece ‘I Crisantemi’ (The Chrysanthemums). This short one-movement work is very soulful, and immediately showed the Sacconi’s ability to produce a sonorous, well-blended sound, but one where each line was also crystal clear. A good start to the evening.

In place of the advertised piece by Graham Fitkin, we then heard the well-known Quartettsatz in C Minor by Schubert, a single movement which may have been intended for an entire quartet, but which stands very well on its own. It opens restlessly and stormily, and the Sacconi played it with ferocious intensity, but under total control. The more lyrical second subject was played very elegantly with radiance, and I was particularly impressed by ‘cellist Cara Berridge’s perfectly precise pizzicato (how alliterative!).

To take us up to the interval we then heard one of Haydn’s much loved Op. 76 quartets, No. 1 in G Major. This is elegant writing by the ‘father of the string quartet’ and the Sacconi’s playing was equally elegant and matched the music perfectly. Once more I was impressed by the transparency of the sound, great clarity but a well-blended ensemble. The second movement can invite wallowing in false ‘soulfulness’, but they managed to avoid this, partly by eschewing excessive vibrato – this gave the performance what we are nowadays told is a more authentic sound. The chorale-like beauty of the theme came across, and although the music is quite sparsely written in places there was a depth and nobility to the sound which was just right.

The third movement is a scherzo-like theme and variations – it is rhythmically frolicsome and invites lots of pulling about with the tempo. The Sacconi did this wonderfully, all watching Ben Hancox’s lead like hawks and their ensemble was once again faultless. The finale requires great virtuosity from all players in the fiendishly rapid writing – there is a wild wandering through various keys in the middle until a single tune emerges. Although a simple melody, this called for colossal dexterity from the first violin to cope with its embellishments and the whole work romped to a joyous finish.

When hearing Beethoven’s late works it’s a sobering and astonishing thought that he never heard a note of them except in his head – his deafness by then was total. The Op. 131 Quartet in C Sharp Minor (‘A stark and remote’ key as described by Ben in his opening remarks) is a tribute to his talent in those sad circumstances, but at times one can hear that the music has been affected by his situation. The opening slow fugue is indeed stark, sad and bleak yet hauntingly beautiful. The four voices overlapped, passed fragments back and forward, merged and then diverged again, all with great intensity – hairs on the back of the neck stuff.

Listening to the second movement I suddenly wondered if Elgar knew this piece well? I heard phrases and harmonies which seemed familiar from the ‘Introduction and Allegro for Strings’ (I’m probably way off the mark!). Again, short motifs handed back and forward, and the lower strings had an equally important part to play in the overall sound.

At this point Beethoven abandoned the conventional four-movement structure and wrote a series of hugely contrasting sets of variations, ending in a sublime adagio in 9/4 time. This is very difficult music to play and the Sacconi encompassed all its demands with great aplomb. The music is episodic and is in no way a flowing narrative. It’s as if the deaf composer was experimenting with new techniques of composition and playing – in places the music seems to be a series of fragments arbitrarily tacked together. Despite this, the players brought a sense of coherence in execution and made great sense of it – their technique was severely tested and I was stunned by their flawless execution of arpeggios across the ensemble, especially the pizzicato ones!

The finale is massive, stormy and forceful, leading to a magisterial coda and ending. The Sacconi thoroughly deserved the long and enthusiastic applause, and quite rightly resisted the calls of ‘Encore’ – anything else would have been superfluous (and an imposition after all that hard work!)

As I said at the beginning, another triumph for Milverton Concert Society, and another opportunity missed for me to say something critical. Oh well, maybe next time, although I doubt it.

Review by Harold W. Mead