Royal Northern Sinfonia’s Chamber Series at Sage, Gateshead on 2nd July 2014

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Royal Northern Sinfonia’s summer chamber series got off to a great start with this pair of quartets, Beethoven’s ‘Komplimentier-Quartett’ (Compliments) and Schubert’s classic ‘Death and the Maiden’.

The chamber series is a great way to see RNS up close in the lovely Hall Two. And as a string player, I’m always hooked in by a good string quartet. As the cellist Gabriel Waite announced at the start, this quartet have had the chance this year to play together a bit more than is usually scheduled for RNS as they have been out and about touring the area with concerts. I felt this showed as their playing was well-matched and comfortable – no frantic moments or rocky rhythms to be heard.

The quartet was only Beethoven’s second, and it sits well against the establishment of the time. Think Haydn and Mozart, then add a touch of rebellion (but not much) and you’ll get about the tone of this work. I particularly enjoyed the lovely cantabile section in the second movement. The final movement was given a fiery interpretation by Iona Brown (1st violin) et al. The audience clapped heartily for this enjoyably mid-classical work.

After the interval came the work surely most in the audience were looking forward to: Schubert’s String Quartet No.14 in D minor ‘Death and the Maiden’. The quartet, one of my all-time favourites I must admit, fits this programmatic nickname: death is ever-present in the work, as it was in Franz Schubert’s life. The first movement begins loud and intense; all the players are in unison on one long note followed by a triplet. It’s hard to describe how revolutionary this was for the time in 1824. Schubert’s emotions really do threaten to overwhelm the quartet at several moments. And even in the energetic Scherzo of the third movement, where Schubert uses an Austrian slow waltz rhythm to great effect, there is always, somehow, a sense of danger and darkness under the surface. The final tarantella was spell-binding – the frantic dance rhythm from southern Italy set in a 6/8 time, frequently used itself as a dance to the death motif. I think I was so swept up in the music here I completely forgot to jot down any notes!

Between the two quartets we were treated to a selection of violin duos played by the front desk of RNS, Bradley Creswick and Kyra Humphreys (pictured). These were taken from a set of folk music-inspired violin exercises written by Béla Bartók for the violin teacher Erich Doflein. Surprisingly, these were quite a little joy, and all with such curious names: ‘Limping Dance’, ‘Romanian Whirling Dance’, ‘Sorrow’, ‘Dudelsack’, to name a few. The real pleasure was in watching two incredibly able musicians take to these studies, giving them all their gusto, to produce real music. Mid-way through we were also treated to a few additional violin duos by Luciano Berio. Each duet is apparently named for a person and a city – in a way they are miniature portraits. These were very varied and also fun. What a good selection!

Reviewer: Katie Lodge

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