Roger Quintana as the golfing virgin Fidel Castro in rehearsal

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Grand Four

A former editor invites me for a drink to celebrate his birthday. I ask him who he shares it with and he doesn't know. Later, deep in conversation with the magazine's libel lawyer, we recall my run-in with the violinist Vanessa-Mae, who took such exception to my review of her concert tour - it 'limped onto the stage like a three-legged dog' - that she paid for a half page advert in the Evening Standard to prove that she shared her birthday with Paganini, a fact on which I had cast aspersions. I'd said such coincidences were meaningless. Challenged, I sought a riposte. I looked into who shared my birthday and discovered I was born on the day Paganini died.

The Brodsky String Quartet celebrates its fortieth birthday with a concert at the Print Room, a tiny, two-year-old fringe theatre in Notting Hill, London. They are deeply into the slow movement of Debussy’s String Quartet when I arrive late and listen first through the window then, with a clatter, at the back of the hall standing in a corner like a naughty schoolboy. They have the concentration of forty years, this most informal of quartets, piercing the copies with their eyes, the cellist sitting, but the others standing, twisting their body with the melodic contortions. Israel was in the desert for so long, searching for the Promised Land. The players achieve a homecoming with the relief of the finale, sailing on a theme which has been used throughout, but which is still as fresh as when they started - the work and their career, albeit with a different violinist back then. The new boy has silver not in his hair but in his distinct tone. They sift through their scores and play Elgar’s Chanson de Nuit as an encore, the sighing Edwardian phrases warm as the evening. Their music uninhibits a crowd who become familiar with each other while dipping into the supper tubs and the Lent-busting chocolates next to the stacks of Chandos CDs - Petit Fours the group’s latest. Soon they will give a concert at the Wigmore Hall which will soften to their genial collective personality (11 March). In May they perform in the Festival at Newbury which is just the sort of place to appreciate a world-class quartet. The former Poet Laureate John Betjeman once loved Wendy in a cupboard during a game of hide-and-seek as he records in Indoor Games Near Newbury.

Fast Music 
Talking of Lent, mine started with the performance of the St John Passion given at St Martin-in-the-Fields by the Neubeuernchor and Klangverwaltung orchestra under Enoch zu Guttenberg (see below). The villagers sang the whipped-up crowd with alert voices and vivid reactions to the rich, unfailingly accurate, crisply enunciated powerful story-telling of Evangelist Andreas Post, the dark cynicism of Shady Torbey’s Pilate singing from a clerestory window, and the molten tone of Tariq Nazmi’s Christ standing tall among the sopranos and contraltos. This was deeply moving in sight and sound, a passionate local tradition come to London. Chorus eyes were everywhere, making drama of the well-known episodes, commiserating with the penitent soloists. A detachment to sing the chorales took the hard pews in the gallery and relished Bach’s bitter harmonies. The orchestra thinned and thickened the texture as the scenes demanded and if they were sometimes a little static, it was only to capture a certain moment as if it were a photographic still. Zu Guttenberg conducted the whole as if it were one seamless garment, tried in vain to stifle the applause (one wouldn’t clap in a Bavarian church in Lent) and, backstage, embraced each performer with equal, democratic warmth before returning to his castle and they to their village.

Swan Upped
I steal the singing cellist out of hospital and we take seats at a concert given by the Orchestra of the Swan at Cadogan Hall. The musicians are based in Stratford, Shakespeare’s birthplace, not the Olympic venue, please note. The Swan orchestra’s strings glow, the viola barking his hungry rhythm prominently in Elgar’s Serenade as the big conductor Kenneth Woods surprises us with the agility in his movement and the lightness in his beat. He disappoints by picking up a microphone at the start of the concert and adding nothing to our enjoyment. Say something perhaps at the end when we have started to enthuse, but not the start. Who goes to a concert to listen to a conductor waffling? Violinist Tamsin Whaley-Cohen was eloquent enough without a script as she freed the captive in Vaughan-Williams’ The Lark Ascending. The dark chords of the same composer’s Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis glowered out of the age of persecution and Britten’s Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge showed us the subtlety of expression which this fine orchestra is capable of, but by then the singing cellist was asleep on my arm.