Six concerts, and a few CDs

The Chiaroscuro Quartet

For a small city, there is an extraordinary amount of music-making going on here in Cambridge  — there are many days during term when you can choose from half-a-dozen or more concerts, often of quite stellar quality.  And if you have the great good fortune to live near the centre, as we do, everything is all within easy walking distance too.

In the last few weeks, then, I have been able to hear Mitsuko Uchida play Schubert (though I find her playing has now become more than a little mannered and occasionally excessive in dramatic emphasis), and hear Angela Hewitt play Bach (the second book of the 48, which made for a very demanding evening! — though the wonderful control, the way Hewitt is able to bring out the fugal structures, combined with the emotional range she found from joyful to sombre contemplation, were all terrific). Then was a delightful concert from the Academy of Ancient Music and the BBC Singers of excerpts from Rameau and Lully operas — sheer enjoyment. Which isn’t ever quite the word to apply to a performance of Winterreise, but the prize-winning young baritone Samuel Hasselhorn was impressive and moving (I wasn’t so taken though with the playing of his accompanist on this occasion, the well-established Malcolm Martineau).

Then there were two quartet recitals I had been much looking forward to. The Jerusalem Quartet, however, I found distinctly disappointing. To be sure, their performances (Mozart ‘Hunt’, Beethoven ‘Harp’, Schubert Quintet with Gary Hoffman) were polished — well-engineered as it were. But even though it was the best possible setting, the very intimate space of the Peterhouse Theatre, I just couldn’t emotionally engage. The Takács started too in a rather disappointing way, with a routine-seeming Mozart K387 — though to be fair, this time I was at the back of a largish church, and the setting was far from ideal. But for Shostakovich’s  Quartet No. 4 they were on fire (enlivened by their younger new second violinist?), playing now with drive and intensity and emotional depth. And after the interval, an equally driven Mendelssohn  Quartet No. 6.

As it happens, I’d just been listening to a recommendable new CD of Mendelssohn quartets, from the Doric Quartet (whom I much admire) which also includes a performance of the sixth quartet — though the Elias Quartet or Quatuor Ébène perhaps  bring out the drama more. And talking of Quatuor Ébène, I’ve very much enjoyed this disc which I’ve only just disovered on iTunes, of the quartet playing with Manahem Pressler, as a 90th birthday celebration.

But the stand-out recent CD really has to be the wonderful Chiaroscuro Quartet playing Schubert. As a visceral experience, their Death and the Maiden — though transformed by the different sound world of their gut strings — is up there with the Pavel Haas Quartet’s award-winning recording. Extraordinary.

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