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REVIEW: Brilliant, young and international - the Castalian Quartet at St Peter's Church

The Castalian Quartet - l to r: Daniel Roberts, Sini Simonen, Charlotte Booneton, Christopher GravesThe Castalian Quartet - l to r: Daniel Roberts, Sini Simonen, Charlotte Booneton, Christopher GravesIn February Christopher Graves brought Alison Rhind to St Peter’s Church to perform a joint piano and cello recital.  This time (Sunday, November 20), Christopher brought more of his friends - friends who have formed the Castalian Quartet.

Having started their training variously in Helsinki, France and Britain, they graduated together with Masters Degrees in Chamber Music in Hannover in 2014, the year they released their first recording to considerable critical acclaim.  Just recognition came quickly.

They won the First Prize at the 2015 Lyon International Chamber Music Festival, and have developed an extensive repertoire and an impressive range of bookings.  They are a group on the ascendant, and we were very privileged to welcome them in homely Saint Peter’s since they were to play the same programme later in the week in a grander setting in Frankfurt.

The evening began with Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major. It is the only string quartet he wrote.  It was written in 1903 while he was still one of Faure’s students at the Paris Conservatoire.  It opens with a sweeping, delicate adagio movement, like gossamer shimmering in a gentle breeze - beautifully and delicately played.   

The second movement has another sweeping melody batted from one instrument to another, the remaining members of the ensemble playing pizzicato for much of the time.  Ravel was imitating the sound of gamelan music from South East Asia, being  one of many artists profoundly influenced by eastern music at the turn of the last century.   

This is followed by a slow movement, the plangent musical lines delicately shaped and played with immense intensity. The work concludes with a fast and furious movement with the theme introduced in the first movement rising above the agitated playing of the lower strings. This was a superb performance, full of energy and intensity.  The subtle changes in dynamics and abrupt shifts in rhythms were adroitly conveyed.   

The second work in their concert, Four Quarters by Thomas Ades had been written for the Emerson String Quartet and first performed in 2011. Thomas Ades studied music at King’s College Cambridge. He is an accomplished pianist and was runner up as BBC Young Musician of the Year in 1990. However it is as a composer than he is better known. He is now Benjamin Britten Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music and has written a wealth of both orchestral music and a series of operas.

Never slow to incorporate new ideas, his ‘Polaris’ is written for piano, orchestra and five video screens! This work, ‘Four Quarters’, requires less demanding resources, but is technically very challenging.  

The work is a time sequence, each movement exploring a different stage of the day. ‘Nightfalls’ is quite remarkable.  The upper four instruments playing a series of high pitched individual notes interacting with one another over the steady continuo of the cello.  Tiny droplets of crystal, sparkling like stars: a brilliant portrayal of the vastness of the heavens.  ‘Morning Dew’ is almost entirely played pizzicato, the whole movement finishing with a series of upward-sweeping octaves.

The last movement ‘The Twenty-fifth Hour’ was quite amazing. The rhythmic sequences are very complex and into their mathematical pattern is woven a wild dance-like fury, slowly dying  away until the fragile harmonies give way to complete silence.  

This was stupendous playing by a group of musicians who revelled in the musical and technical opportunities which Ades had provided. The audience was left utterly amazed both with the virtuosic playing, but also at the complexity and compositional ingenuity which the music had portrayed.

The second half of the programme was devoted to Brahms’s String Quartet No 3 in B Flat. This was music that fitted within the ‘frames of reference’ which the audience recognised! It is a lovely piece in which the first movement begins with a series of hunting calls followed by a pastoral rocking theme, in which Brahms uses his ever-favourite two time signatures at the same time.  

The third movement, an adagio, consists largely of a wonderful and languid viola solo. It is written as a waltz, but the music is surprisingly dark and tormented. The clouds clear for the last movement, a Finale in the form of a theme and variations in which the initial hunting theme from the first movement plays a significant part.  

The diversity of mood in these movements was subtly expressed and the viola playing was really lovely.  The group played as one, the eye-contact being ample evidence of how melded they are as chamber players.

What a concert! Three dramatically different works from three different centuries and different musical traditions, one of which took us out of our ‘comfort zone’.   They gave us great pleasure - their warmth of personality and their musical skill appreciated by us all.    

The Quartet are: Sini Simonen (violin), Daniel Roberts (violin), Charlotte Booneton (viola) and Christopher Graves (cello).

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