The opening concert of Letchworth Music’s 2023-24 Season was held at ‘Howgills’ on Tuesday 11th October 2023. It featured the Julian Quartet (Jean Paterson and Lucy Hewson (violins), Nichola Blakey (viola) and Cressida Nash (cello). The first half featured four of Purcell’s Dances and Fantasias in Four Parts, with Beethoven’s String Quartet no. 16 in F major Opus 135 after the Interval. We were disappointed to welcome a small but enthusiastic audience to what promised to be a unique experience, integrating the spoken word into the musical compositions.
The Purcell was framed and interspersed by readings from the poetry of John Donne (1571/2-1631), a recusant Cleric who became Dean of (Old) St. Paul’s Cathedral. His writings mused on the frailty of the human condition, and his work was posthumously credited as ‘metaphysical’. The readings throughout were by Simon Marlow, Member of our Committee. He included Donne’s now universally-known adage:
‘Never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee’
The Julians were historically informed in their playing, with a straightforward approach, without vibrato. Their corporate tone blended in grandeur with sentiment, not sentimentality. It would be good to hear more of these works, which would stand up well, without the ingenious narrative support, though this certainly added a further dimension to the programme.
After the Interval I moved to the Balcony to obtain a more blended sonic perspective. The Opus 135
was both the last String Quartet and the last of the now iconic six late Quartets completed by Ludwig van Beethoven, during 1825-26. Prinz Nikolai commissioned the first three, which were written as the composer’s health failed. The fifteenth contained the ‘Holy song of thanks’ (Heiliger Dankgesang) for restored health. The sixteenth (Opus 135) was concise, yet ti contained profound existential questions- after three short and lyrical movements the finale was headed ‘The Difficult decision’ (Der schwer gefasste Entschluss). Beethoven wrote in the manuscript under the Grave introductory chords of the finale, ‘Must it be?’ (Mus es sein?). Answered, moving into the allegro by the determinant ‘It Must be!’ (Es muss sein!).
In the performance of this work the merits of the Julians prevailed; the linear follow through of generally brisk tempi, underpinning the evolving themes with a natural emergence of the more lyrical passages sustained by their consistency of rhythm, again with limited vibrato. We cannot know how much the composer was able to hear or even sense, or the audience’s reception. Opus 135 became a most distinguished Op; Posth, as it was not played in public (in Vienna) by the Schuppanzigh Quartet until a year after Beethoven’s death.
The literary context narrated by Simon Barlow was provided by Little Gidding’ (1942), the final of the Four Quartets’ by the American-born poet Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) OM and Nobel Laureate. The poems discuss time, perspective, humanity and salvation. Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire was a Utopian Anglican community established by Nicholas Ferrar in the 17th century and scattered by the Civil War. The poem combined the images of purgative fire, and the necessity for humanity to recognise the lessons of the past in a holistic unity of present, past and future. The church, the centre of the community was restored in 1714 and 1853. Now the Parish Church of S.t John the Evangelist, it is now Listed Grade I by Historic England, and Ferrar’s Tomb is protected Grade I.
Dr Mervyn Miller, The narrative and opinions expressed herein are personal to the author.
On Wednesday 13th October 2021 the first programme in our 2021 Season was given by the Astaria String Quartet: Shulah Oliver – violin and leader; Kelly McCusker – violin; Kate Bickerdike – viola, and Sean K. Gilde – cello. An audience of 55 was present. Shulah told us that the quartet were proud that their first music club post-lockdown gig was in the historic Meeting Room at Howgills. Her announcements for each item in the varied programme brimmed with enthusiasm and helpful information, and set a standard which we hope will be matched in later concerts. The quartet’s playing embraced the technical challenges with zest. She compared the late Haydn Op. 77 quartets with their near contemporary Beethoven equivalents in the Op. 18 set with Beethoven eliding into Haydn and vice-versa.
The first half ended with two quartet transcriptions by Dmitri Shostakovich (whose 15 string quartets are one of the most significant and challenging written during the 20th century) of two pieces which encompassed the Stalinist challenges of his career in reverse order. The Elegy took the aria in which the anti-heroine of the opera The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District confesses to the murder of her lover. The opera had been a success d’estime for two years before Stalin saw a performance at the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow … an editorial in Pravda, ‘muddle instead of music’, authorised if not written by the Great Leader went for the composer’s jugular. By contrast, Polka was the hit of the full-length ballet The Age of Gold, premiered by the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad in 1930, while the composer was in his mid-twenties. The quartet transcription highlighted the slides and off-pitch moments of the xylophone solo in the popular orchestral suite from the ballet. Astaria played with relish punctuated by laughter.
After a ‘dry’ interval, came the Dvorak Tenth Quartet, Op. 51. Shulah told us that this mid-period quartet made a welcome change from the familiar excellence of Dvorak’s later ‘American’ quartet. In fact the publishers welcomed the integration of Slavonic themes with the then traditional four movement structure of the string quartet. The second movement featured the dumka, with its minor/major duality, which turned the movement almost into a scherzo with its vivace ending. The Romanza third movement restored calm and with the allegro assai, the Astaria Quartet brought a rousing end to our first concert of the season.
All in all a joyous occasion. As Henry Hall was wont to announce on the BBC in the 1930s, ‘Here’s to the Next Time!’.
NEXT CONCERT: Wednesday 10th November 2021
Amy Roberts (oboe) and Gamal Khamis (piano)
Grovlez, Musgrave, Debussy, Poulenc, Messiaen, Handel, Bach, Saint-Saens
Live Music in Congenial Surroundings: Experience the Magic, You’re All Most Welcome!
Mervyn Miller, Letchworth Music Committee