My wife advises against wearing it to the European Chamber Music Academy (ECMA) concert at the Wigmore Hall on Saturday afternoon, however. She says it would be sure to divert attention from the performers, the Quatuor Zaide, who are very focused on Zemlinsky's Fourth Quartet of 1936, composed in response to the death of Alban Berg. Like the latter's Lyric Suite, it has six dance-like movements.
There is a momentary fumble as the slow opening chord finds its tonal centre, but once the first violin arrives, the work proceeds with solemn purpose. The players perform with a sense of ritual in their slow arms and faces as if praying. They are determined to impress; their bows are bold and the pizzicati in the Burleske flash like sparks. The effect is gripping. The Adagietto resumes the Praeludium's magical floating stillness while the Intermezzo is more furious than merely lively or belebt as the score directs. Perhaps this is a climax too soon as the cellist now plays alone the opening of the Theme and Variations and calms the crowd like a priestess. The instruments follow the tortuous logic of the twisted tune as it meanders round the parts and rise to heights of passion and absorption in the double fugue finale.
The four young females comprising the multiple prize-winning Quatuor Zaide are taught by Hatto Beyerle, founder-violist in 1960 of the Alban Berg and, in 2004, progenitor of the ECMA. The Academy, which has no base as such, operates as a perfecting school for already established student ensembles and the Wigmore series, paid for by a benefactor, is an opportunity to showcase the ECMA's work. Those who were there will not forget the name quickly.
'I don't teach interpretation,' says Beyerle, watching his protegees from a modest seat in the side-aisle. 'I'm not here to impose myself. The students are encouraged to see music as language and philosophy. What emerges are their own ideas.'
The spell cast by the Quatuor Zaide is replaced by the joie-de-vivre of the Arcadia Quartet of Romania. They take the stage rather more heavily than the sylph-like Zaides. Their chairs creak. But the pudgy fingers of the first violin fly over the fingerboard with astonishing speed and lightness as he immaculately dispatches the triplets in the finale of Haydn's Emperor Quartet Op76 No3. The second violin matches him and, with knowing half-smiles, the pair vie for supremacy. This sense of fun begins in the first movement with the cellist's and violist's grinding hurdy-gurdy pedal notes supporting the jaunty theme.
The hall is contented, pliant and willing now to be charmed by the dainty grace-notes of the minuet or lulled by the tearful serenity of the slow movement theme. Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser, one hears in one's head as its sad loyalty takes hold. It's the German national anthem with all its emotional baggage and it wells up like a haunting echo of past beauty and horror. Haydn's flattery of the Emperor doesn't lie, doesn't tell him his flabby, naked form is really apparelled in ermine. The theme is a true statement about the melancholy nature of kingship and the inexplicable love which subjects sometimes have for those who preside over states.
I emerge thrilled by the concert and immediately write a note to The Strad magazine to see if they will buy a story on Beyerle's ECMA. Zaide played with the greater intensity, but Arcadia more joy. We are certain to hear more of both.
Singers Fail to Act
Linn Records, Label of the Year at the Gramophone Awards 2010, sends me a new recording of Dr Thomas Arne’s two-hour, three-act opera Artaxerxes, given by The Classical Opera Company under Ian Page. It elucidates only in part how this particular show managed to command a London audience for nearly 60 years following its premiere at Covent Garden on 2 February 1762.
The plot is as preposterous as any. The sons and daughters of both an assassin and his royal victim are in love with each other. The murderer deflects blame by accusing his own offspring, which upsets all previous loyalties. The music is incomplete: few of the recitatives have survived, so Page composes plausible, safe but dull new ones to the extant texts. These are rather lumpy translations by Arne of Metastasio’s 1730 Italian original, set by everyone from Gluck to Hasse.
Most of the singers are too reliant on their excellent voices of conveying the drama. They stun with vocal prowess over Arne’s seemingly endless melodic invention – soprano Elizabeth Watts pings out the top Cs in the concluding air to Act I, Fly Soft Ideas - but they fail to feel the story, however ludicrous, and the recording drags until tenor Daniel Norman enters as the murderer’s sidekick with an ironic glint to his recit and a comic edge in his first air, When real joy we miss / Tis some degree of bliss (Arne’s doggerel at its worst). The girls wake up; Watts finds an angry snarl in Monster Away, soprano Rebecca Bottone assumes a breathless flightiness now buffeted by fast-moving events. Mezzo Caitlin Hulcup as the accused discovers dark pathos in Why is Death, a short aria typifying almost all those written for Act III in which an opening couplet culminates in a singer’s exciting long-held note. This seems to be Arne’s formula after ditching the old Baroque da capo aria as Gluck had advocated the previous year in his operatic reforms.
Counter-tenor Christopher Ainslie in the title role, meanwhile, has rare, resonant low notes, but never really persuades us that he is wrestling with his conscience. Tenor Andrew Staples as the regicide has a fine, sleepy legato, but is bereft of any sense of villainy. His part offers a plum chance to act evil, but he shuns it. It is the cast’s failure fully to inhabit their characters’ roles, which does for the recording. The number of settings alone accounts for this story’s popularity with audiences, but the cast here render it bland until too late. The band is rich with interest in its variety of wind, including early cooing clarinets, narrow-bore horns and trumpets bursting with impatience after waiting two hours for their entry. At least it ends with a roar.