Reviewer: Ron Simpson
For over 50 years, via a name change and several shifts of venue, Wakefield Concert Society has brought a regular programme of quality chamber music to the city. Now well settled in Wakefield Girls’ High School’s Jubilee Hall, the society programmes six concerts a year, mainstream enough to keep up attendances, but enterprisingly varied, with a few surprises.
This was certainly true of the concert by the Opera North String Quartet. The opera orchestra’s leader, David Greed, was joined by Katherine New (violin), David Aspin (viola) and Jessica Burroughs (cello), all section leaders in the orchestra so that, while they are not specialist chamber musicians, the understanding and rapport formed in the front desks of the orchestra was obvious.
The major impact was made by the second work on the programme, Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8, which many of the audience (including your reviewer) were hearing for the first time. Written in 1960 when the composer visited Dresden and saw the still evident devastation caused by World War Two bombing raids, it consists of five powerfully emotional interconnected movements evoking the suffering of war.
The quartet begins and ends with slow movements, the plaintive opening giving way to a dramatic and intense allegro, with viola and cello almost percussive in their impact, before the fourth movement is directly expressive of the Dresden fire-storms, a steady drone from the first violin representing the high-flying aircraft while the other three instruments simulate the falling bombs. Finally, this gives way to a more subdued melancholy, not by any means serene, but recollected in greater calm.
The Opera North Quartet’s performance brought out the dynamic contrasts and deeply-felt commitment of the piece and provided a telling contrast to the sunnier pieces that began and ended the concert. Haydn, being undoubtedly the father of the string quartet, it was highly appropriate to start with the Quartet No. 5 from his final sequence, Opus 76. Sometimes known as the “Largo Quartet” because the beautiful slow second movement dominates the piece, both in length and in impact, the quartet well illustrates the point made in the programme note that Haydn created works where each of the four instruments was equal and independent. In the celebrated Largo it is the cello part that is most memorable. Typically of Haydn, a string quartet famed for its spirituality ends with a wittily exuberant finale, the Opera North Quartet enjoying the rhythmic games and stop-start flourishes of the final Presto.
After the interval, the final piece was the most familiar, Alexander Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2, a delightfully melodic piece, so melodic in fact that it spawned two songs for a hit musical, Kismet, the most memorable, And this is My Beloved forming the slow movement, designated a nocturne. Borodin’s treatment of it begins with the cello before passing the melody around violin and viola, supported and prompted by little wistful phrases from the other instruments.
After the powerful emotions of the Shostakovich, the lyricism of the Borodin restored cheerfulness on a cold winter’s evening, barely disturbed by the gently brooding melancholy of the encore, Puccini’s Chrysanthemums, heard, for once, in its original string quartet form.
Reviewed on 6 January 2018 | Image: Richard Moran