Vanbrugh Quartet at the National Concert Hall, 14 November 2014
This is the second of four concerts given by the Vanbrugh Quartet as part of a series (‘Scoring History’) curated by composer Ian Wilson. In his spoken introduction Wilson explains that this concert has as its theme the title ‘Distant Lands’, with all three pieces projecting an idea of exploration and reaching out to new places. Wilson’s third string quartet ‘towards the Far Country’ (1996) was originally commissioned by the West Cork Chamber Music Festival and premiered (and later recorded) by the Vanbrugh Quartet itself. As Wilson explains, this work is twice the length of his first quartet – and his most ambitious in terms of scale and content – and so it represented quite a ‘journey’ of discovery for him when he composed it. Cast in one single, long movement (though punctuated by occasional pauses), the music suggests a progression through time and space. Partly inspired by seven Paul Klee paintings, the sense of clarity, colour and line comes through in the episodic nature of the musical writing, which receives committed and focused playing from the ensemble. Meditative and angular by turns, the soundscape shifts between long streams of undulating textures, ringing, static chords and passages of intense complexity. Wilson writes well for the different sonorities of the string instruments and the quartet responds with a vividly characterful performance through to the work’s witty, open ending.
The taut economy of Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet (1918) contrasts strongly with the dreamlike stretches of the opening work. The quartet handles the disparate forms of the three miniature pieces with alert, well-controlled performances, managing the shifts of style with ease. The programme concludes with the more familiar String Quartet (1893) of Claude Debussy. The Vanbrugh Quartet brings this wonderful – yet still challenging – work to life with some lovely playing. The sinuous lines of the inner movements are set off with elegant interplay between the players, and real warmth and beauty of tone. By contrast, the drier textures of the finale encourage a tough, dark-toned reading, highlighting the richness of the piece as a whole.
The only negative note in the concert is the venue itself, the former reading room of the old Engineering Library. The acoustic of this stark room seems to add a leaden weight to the sound in louder passages, while worse still is the constant hum from the temporary lighting rig (or possibly the heating), very audible not only in the silences but even the quieter parts of the music. If this space is to be used more frequently, one can only hope that this can be remedied.
Ian Wilson: ‘towards the Far Country’, quartet no. 3 (1996)
Igor Stravinsky: Three Pieces for String Quartet (1918)
Claude Debussy: String Quartet in G minor (1893)