Robin Tritschler and Sacconi Quartet at Royal Irish Academy on 12 June 2018

Starting off the summer in style, once again it’s the turn of Great Music in Irish Houses to open the season of great Irish chamber music festivals. With its 50th anniversary in 2020 in touching distance, this year sees GMIH extend its engagement with new music, and the reason many have come to tonight’s concert is that it includes the Irish premiere of the song cycle ‘In Damascus’ by Jonathan Dove. Originally written for the Sacconi Quartet, the ensemble matches this piece with two contrasting works in the first half, by Haydn and Shostakovich.

Haydn’s String Quartet in F minor is one of those pieces that remind you how deceptive and experimental Haydn could be. Not for him the big expressive gestures of Mozart or Beethoven: instead it’s something far less certain. The atmospheric slow opening movement creates a mood of understatement, a closely-integrated texture of sound, smooth-grained reverie, and sweet lyricism. The gestures are richly nuanced, and can be deeply expressive and suggestive, though the performance we hear from the Sacconis, while well-balanced in terms of sound, comes across as slightly detached or tentative, as if they’re still working out how best to interpret this music. The second-movement allegro is promisingly nervy, but the best playing comes through in the following minuet, a dance full of teasing questions and smart ideas.

Programming this with Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 in C minor certainly creates a contrast, in more ways than one. That hushed opening, with each instrument starting in sequence from the bottom up, is like a dark flower opening, and the ensemble weaves this spell beautifully. There is a greater sense of authority in their playing here, along with an edgy and suave playfulness, and the dream-like detail of the music is worked through in engrossing fashion. All the same, the naked melodrama of this piece—with its occasionally violent gestures—at times seemed almost too well-managed, too cool for some, though by the end this approach creates the exquisite effect of a silence around the music, to which it ultimately succumbs.

The graphic images of conflict in the Shostakovich and the understatedness of the Haydn are both elements that feed into the central work of the evening, Jonathan Dove’s ‘In Damascus’. Introduced by the composer, this song cycle for tenor and string quartet sets a harrowing sequence of prose-poems by the Syrian writer Ali Safar, translated by Anne-Marie McManus. The texts themselves describe ‘everyday’ life in Damascus, as it is now, a desperate memorial of the still-unfolding crisis. Robin Tritschler stands at the centre, directly behind the four players, and takes up the role of story-teller and interpreter. A superb recitalist, Tritschler is in his element with this material, which he sings with beautiful expression and clarity. Dove’s musical idiom, moving between lament and lullaby, creates a shifting, iridescent frame for these keenly-etched words of hope, promise and despair. The smooth playing of the quartet underpins the different moments and events within the music, serving the intuitive writing to telling effect. As a song cycle, this ‘road to nowhere’ expresses not so much the Schubertian pain of unattainable longing as the suffering of that which is immediate and all-too-present. At the close we are left hanging, suspended. A vital work, it well deserves its audience, who in this case rise as one to applaud once the silence is eventually broken.

Programme:

Josef Haydn: String Quartet in F minor, Op. 55 no. 2
Dmitri Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110
Jonathan Dove: In Damascus (2016)

Sacconi Quartet, with Robin Tritschler (tenor)

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