Last night in the Tolmen Centre, Constantine, we were given a treat. A quartet of musicians attending the International Musicians Seminar [IMS] at Prussia Cove in West Cornwall came and played at the Centre as part of a short tour of West Cornwall venues.
Founded by the Hungarian violinist Sandor Vegh, this is a big year for IMS as it is their fiftieth Anniversary. Twice a year, in Spring and in Autumn, the seminars are run, offering master classes for students of music and recent graduates all over the world, as well as a chance for experienced world-class performers to work together with different musicians and to refresh and push the boundaries of their own musicality.
The quartet comprised Lesley Hatfield [violin], who is leader of the National Orchestra of Wales and a member of the Gaudier Ensemble and much more; Emily Nebel [violin] who has appeared with a large number of orchestras and Chamber groups all over Europe; David Adams [viola] who has played with a string of Chamber groups, including the Nash Ensemble, Endellion String Quartet, the Raphael Ensemble and many more; Alice Neary [cello] has been principal cellist for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and has performed with groups all over Europe and the USA. She is also a renowned pianist and has 25 CDs to her name.
The concert began with Beethoven’s String Quartet Op.18, No 3 in D major. The work is in four movements and was the first quartet Beethoven wrote.
The first movement began quietly and was full of joyous little ripples, like laughter, as if Beethoven had enjoyed exploring and playing with the potential of each instrument. The second movement started with the quiet grace of a dance in which each instrument appeared to invite the next to join and in the third movement the dance quickened and sped to a close. Huge contrasts between light dabs and strong bowing occurred in the fourth movement. Again there was a joyous feel to the piece where Beethoven had the four instruments racing up and down and overlapping as if trying to catch each other out. The whole piece was a revelation and a joy to be part of as listeners.
Next came Dvorak’s Cypresses, Nos. 9 and 11, pieces I was familiar with for the piano but not as a trio for one violin, viola and cello. In Cypresses No 9, the viola’s lovely warm tones held the opening tune which was joined gradually by the other two instruments in turn. The piece ended quietly with the viola again, this time plucking the strings. Cypresses 11 had a hurrying rhythm alternating with stiller moments. It had me imagining a busy person rushing along only to be surprised into wonder and reflection at the beauty of the view.
After the interval we were treated to another string trio by the composer from Budapest, Zoltan Kodaly. Intermezzo for String Trio demonstrated Kodaly’s love of his country’s rustic people and their folk tunes. The skipping rhythms of the peasant tunes which also inspired Kodaly’s friend, Bela Bartok, were offset by a quieter passage, full of reverence and led first by the viola before the piece picked up into the rhythms of a country dance, underpinned by the cello, softly plucking.
Next came a short piece by Bohuslav Martinu – Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola [No. 2] wittily introduced by Adams who described how Martinu’s family lived in the belfry of their local church through his childhood. No bells in this piece but instead an exploration of the colour and scope of the two instruments. A difficult piece full of sliding chromatics, arpeggios that scampered up and down and discordancies that resolved blissfully into harmony and ended peacefully, moving from deliberately being out of sync to a coming together with a series of sublime long notes.
The concert ended with Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 20, No 2 in C major. Haydn was to all intents and purposes the inventor of the string quartet. We, who are used to chamber music, often forget what a debt we owe to Haydn for the playfulness and humour of his chamber catalogue. Lesley Hatfield, who introduced this part of the programme, also told us that it was Haydn who liberated the cello from just being the bass continuo to an exploration of its range and beauty.
Indeed, the first movement, marked Moderato, starts with the voice of the cello, which then gives way to the violins. The master of surprise, the movement is full of sudden fast runs from all the instruments. The second and third movements, Cappricio, followed by the short Minuet, starts with a strong series of notes in unison. The cello introduces the quieter section through which cuts the first violin in a lament. Cello answers sympathetically but the first violin has a song to sing, through which the other three instruments render a background of sympathy and support, emphasised by repetition of those strong unison passages. Finally was the Fugue in Four Parts. After a soft, light opening was a sudden strong and loud explosion of sound as the instruments wove in and out of each other. The piece ended with a very exciting gallop to a unison finish.
There is of course nothing like seeing and hearing live music. The obvious enjoyment of the performers enhanced this experience. Whatever combination they were working in, these wonderful musicians treated us to rich contrasts of light and shade, giving life in every case to these long-dead composers, as if unearthing them and bringing them literally from darkness into light. Watching them I was struck by the physicality of the performers; their bodies danced with and curled lovingly round their instruments; each became one creature.
They were all adept at bringing out the humour of the pieces and the rapid changes of pace and volume and, in the companionable space of the Tolmen Centre, surrounded by the warmth of that wooden interior which enhances the music, they took turns introducing each piece with learning but also with a delightful informality.
Thank you IMS for a wonderful evening.