REVIEW: Castalian String Quartet, Brighton

Castalian Quartet with Simon Rowland-Jones

Coffee Concert: Castalian String Quartet plus guest viola at Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts.

Sini Simonen (Finland) and Daniel Roberts (Wales) violins, Charlotte Bonneton (France) viola, Christopher Graves (England) cello.

Haydn, Quartet Op76 No 5 in D (1796); Britten, Quartet No 2 in C Op36 (1945); Brahms, String Quintet No 1 in F Op88 (with Simon Rowland-Jones, viola).

A new record Coffee Concert attendance was undeterred by the coldest air Siberia could send us on Sunday. There were 40 people making a late decision to come and tot the gate up to 264 people, which beats The Corn Exchange’s best before its rebuilding forced these concerts into temporary exile in non In-The-Round format.

Next month, could the inclusion of the Trout Quintet by popular Trio Isimsiz mean Schubert’s popularity helps hoist the crowd to the ACCA’s capacity of 300? I hear betting shops in the Far East are now offering shorter odds on it happening. Not to my knowledge has this crowd-puller been played at the Corn Exchange Coffee Concerts.

The Castalians have joined the Heath and the Elias among the CCs’ most popular string quartets, so that helps explain the audience enthusiasm. But the inclusion of Britten in their programme alongside a Brahms piece far less well-known by non-connoisseurs than his piano-based chamber music testifies to how this audience has developed an appetite for more music than it knows.

And that is tribute to the endeavour, patience, courage, belief, and extended time-scale adopted by Brighton Festival/Dome’s Andrew Comben and the CCs’ support group Strings Attached in formulating these immensely rewarding concerts.

The rarified oxygen on offer is becoming ever more commonly sought and savoured. And at ACCA this time was evidence of the slowly increasing proportion of young people, which began at The Corn Exchange but which has needed time for the seed to germinate among students across the walkway from Sussex University.

Coffee Concert fans just love a young quartet to come smiling through with a highest-quality delivery of the goods and the Castalians are now part of that Coffee Concerts family. And that’s not because this audience have had to be told by concert promotion that the Castalians are exceptionally good in an already international class monthly parade of Coffee Concert artistes. It’s looking as though this audience has developed its own instinct about such things.

This time the Quartet came along with a guest second viola a generation older than they – Simon Rowland Jones. He is a founder member of the Chilingirians (with them 10 years) and a seasoned recording artiste, professor in his instrument and in chamber music at the Royal College and Guildhall School, editor of Haydn and Bach, specialist arranger and transcriber of the latter, composing pupil of Nadia Boulanger, and a festival co-director.

It’s his choice to play with the Castalians: why? What, I asked him, has this quartet got that others haven’t?

“They have the finest musical sensibilities,” he replied. “They are already on a strong trajectory and they’re going to go very far, indeed. I’ve worked with a number of fine young quartets and there is something very special and focused about this particular one. The way they think about the music tells you that they have such an understanding: it’s about the music - and not about them.”

That last thing spells potential longevity. We are watching the comparative start.

Individually on Sunday, I think we saw Sini Simonen starting to blossom as an engaging lead violin in live performance of gently increasing command. And Charlotte Bonnetton glowed in the several significant viola moments the programme included. Her playing demonstrated life and soul. Her cadenza in Britten’s final movement was distinctly fraught and impassioned.

Christopher Graves, a cellist so apparently at ease he seems to downplay his instrument’s penchant for the dramatic, this time signalled his own aptitude for key moments. These began with his exciting running solo in the trio of the Haydn Minuet movement. His cadenza in the Britten was powerfully affirming and his fiercely bracing late work-out with Bonnetton’s viola in the Brahms finale was the final crowning moment of the concert.

On second violin Daniel Roberts is an assertive giver to the other three in his often overshadowed role, but his variation in the Britten, cued up by Bonnetton’s cadenza, was a rarer chance to perceive his broad strength and assured attack.

Collectively, there was much to admire. Their Haydn progressed from a supreme, non-vibrato sublimity fronted by Simonen in the Largo, to a tightly unified and joyful raciness in the finale. Their relaxed, mellow, elated and stirring Brahms with Rowland-Jones was the necessary foil to their disturbing but tense and riveting Britten. Commitment, subtlety, veiled intrigue, stabbing and jabbing new energy, and a climax which, called to action by Simonen’s virtuosic cadenza, crescendoed to the concluding 23 rockface chords of C major.

The audience came ready to hear this piece. Chris Darwin’s ‘origins of the pieces’ programme notes prepared them admirably. And the rigour and oneness of the Castalians’ account of the Britten was so comprehensive, the music left the audience bereft of the fuel needed to applaud the Quartet back to the stage a deserved second time.

Richard Amey

Next Coffee Concert (Sunday March 25 at 11am): More ensemble augmentation. Trio Isimsiz play Schubert’s Trout Quintet D667 with Timothy Ridout on viola and a double bassist to be named. The Trio open with Schubert in Bb D28 ‘Sonatensatz, and Beethoven Opus70 No 2 in Eb.

Trio Isimsiz are Pablo Hernán Benedi (violin), Michael Petrov (cello), Erdem Misirlioğlu (piano). Erdem and Michael performed together on BBC Radio 3’s In Tune last week. Pablo is second violin in Alina Ibragimova’s Chiaroscuro Quartet, whose Haydn Opus 20 No 3 was recently BBC Radio 3’s Building A Library top recommendation.

Bonus extra Coffee Concert (Sunday April 29 at 11am): Quatuor Arod from France. String Quartets by Haydn Op74 No 3 (‘The Rider’) and Beethoven ‘Rasumovsky’ Op59 No2 in C; plus Benjamin Attahir’s Episode 2 Al’asr.

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