REVIEW: Castalian Quartet – Coffee Concert at the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, Sussex University, Falmer

Castalian Quartet by Kaupo Kikkas
Castalian Quartet by Kaupo Kikkas
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Sini Simonen, Daniel Roberts (violins), Charlotte Bonneton (viola), Christopher Graves (cello). Haydn, String Quartet in Bb Op76 No 4 ‘Sunrise’ (1797); Thomas Adès, The Four Quarters (2010); Beethoven, Quartet in F Op59 No 1 ‘Rasumovsky’ (1804).

Here’s one for the psychologists. Does the combination of two women and two men comprising an ensemble promise perfect balance? Abba analysers might warn the ideal result could be temporary, although the pop music industry with its high casualty rate, we are thankful, is not the classical chamber music one.

I’ve not studied string quartet line-ups in this way – there’ll be people in the music colleges with a theory or two, and this quartet, now two and two, were formerly three women and a man. But if it’s the magic of music-making that melds successfully four maybe disparate people of whatever gender or nationality, I was struck by the calm equilibrium of the young Castalians on Sunday. Not just the unity of their response to the music but the homogeneity of their sound.

Homogeneity is not desirable at every turn, but here it was pervasive to fascinating effective. The differentiating factor seemed to be Finnish leader Sini Simonen. She is in her third year with this only six-year-old quartet and the other members evidently gel organically and embracing around her physically undemonstrative playing and stage presence, her non-histrionic, unaggressive musical personality, and her consistent understated and contained emotional expression. The resultant atmosphere in this concert was somehow elevated, with the Castalians seeming only semi-grounded, of almost walking on air.

I didn’t expect that overall effect during the Beethoven ‘Rasumovsky’ No1 or the Haydn ‘Sunrise’. Was it that The Four Quarters of Thomas Adès in the middle of the programme implored an airborne, unwordly approach to reach the realm his unusual score created? And spread that spirit across the morning? After their Haydn had come with control, poise and lightness, plus gentle touches and grave, then latterly fleetness, the Castalians in this remarkable programme shifted so easily from the oldest to the newest quartet-writing era.

Programme notes from Chris Darwin, excelling even himself this time, alerted listeners of what to await in The Four Quarters. Yet even those not bothering to read will have been drawn in by the intriguing sound world and by the Castalians’ assurance in its complex execution.

Nightfalls – Serenade: Morning Dew – Days – The Twenty-Fifth Hour; those are the movement titles. Final non-resolution was commonplace and these were sustained looks into an ongoing, pleasingly magnetic semi-reality. The Castalians were at home and at ease in the different effects, and they hid away the technical challenges, as they made this stimulating music visible as well as feelable.

Then came their Beethoven, without bombast yet still taut when necessary, and incisive in their attack, amid a seeming overall serenity - even during the most vibrant, energetic and dynamic moments of its 40 minutes of length. I think I might have heard Beethoven float at times. But later, from Charlotte Bonneton’s viola, throaty assertion added to the whole.

I said ‘disparate people’. Sini wore a black soft jacket, trousers and flat shoes. Fellow fiddler, Daniel Roberts, a Welshman in mourning after defeat hours earlier at Murrayfield, had a collarless white shirt open at the top, under a dark suit. French violist Charlotte’s straight full-length black dress was slit to the knee above suede heels with sweet bows. And English cellist Christopher Graves, the ‘insatiably optimistic’ team member, reveals Roberts’ blog, was in black trousers and shirt, loose at the collar with cuffs folded back.

No dress code. Only their music counts.

There was little time to chat afterwards: a taxi awaited and a concert next day in far-off Cheshire. They are busy bees, BBC New Generation artists, and have earned a fortnight’s residency this month at Snape and Aldeburgh. Daniel told me ‘Castalian’ they’d chosen after the Greek fountain at Delphi’s Castalian Spring, which is the nymph Castalia in the form Apollo desired. Here, where ancient pilgrims washed and drank, and Pythian Games were contested, the Romans derived poetic inspiration. Later, the Court of Scotland’s King James VI featured ‘The Castalian Band’ of poets and bards.

In a crowded profession, as names for a string quartet go, this does nicely. They are capable of poetry. Some 260 of the 300 Attenborough Centre seats were occupied by people who came to see them as the first Coffee Concert string quartet since the Heath on October. And 25 were Sussex University students on the CAVATINA free ticket scheme.

I’ve added ‘Charlotte Bonneton’ to a secret list, now of three names. The others? Sarah and Marie Bittloch of Elias Quartet. I’ve just a second violinist to go to complete my frivolous little dream all-French all-female fantasy string quartet of players seen at the Coffee Concerts. Have I missed someone? Tell me if so.

I’ve already named them Enchanté Quartet (although I can’t imagine them putting up with that for long!). And I’m afraid this all dates back to The Old Market in 2006 and Ensemble 360, who for Spohr’s Nonet had a French lady double-bassist whose name I have shamefully forgotten. Don’t mock. Simply permit a man his brief chamber révèrie français. It might make him useful to someone someday.

Next and final Coffee Concert this season (same venue): Trio Wanderer on Sunday March 19 at 11am. Piano Trios – Dvorak No4 in E minor Op90 N166 ‘Dumky’, named after the Bohemian dance; Suk Elegy, from Dvorak’s pupil and son-in-law; Schubert No2 in Eb D929, completing his pair of piano trios begun by Trio Isimsiz with his No1 in Bb three seasons back.

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