Review: Endellions at West Road
JOE CONWAY: ‘Almost all the music on the programme was written in minor keys, much of it was introspective and pessimistic, and was definitely not composed with entertainment in mind. Yet how the large audience loved it. And rightly so.’
Endellion String Quartet
21st April 7.30pm at West Road Concert Hall. £20/£18/£10
Four guys walking onstage wearing immaculate white tie outfits is nothing special, particularly in Cambridge. In the setting of the West Road Concert Hall, the sartorial elegance of the Endellion String Quartet merely confirmed what we all knew already. That this was one of the most traditional musical line-ups, playing to a traditional audience, in a traditional manner. But, I would suggest, none the worse for that.
Yet what struck me as the four players appeared was an interesting tension between the formality of the occasion and the unbridled nature of the works on the programme. Or, to put it another way, between the formal English atmosphere and the highly-charged Central European repertoire. Furthermore the concert offered no sweeteners. Almost all the music on the programme was written in minor keys, much of it was introspective and pessimistic, and was definitely not composed with entertainment in mind. Yet how the large audience loved it. And rightly so.
From the opening D minor chords of Haydn's Quartet Opus 76 No 2, we were swept along by the mellow Endellion sound. Leader Andrew Watkinson took charge of the passionate opening melody with some commanding bowing while his three colleagues provided urgent accompaniments. A composer renowned for tongue-in-cheek jokiness, Haydn stays in a surprisingly sombre mood throughout this work. As well as anticipating the stormier scores of his pupil Beethoven, he also looks back to the Baroque in several passages of fierce counterpoint. Notably in the gloriously grungy third movement, where Andrew and fellow violinist Ralph de Souza kicked off with an aggressive minuet-type tune, imitated a beat or two later by violist Garfield Jackson and cellist David Waterman.
Schubert's A minor quartet offered no respite from the high seriousness of the programme. Yet it doesn't deal in overt tragedy as much as in reluctant resignation. At the age of 25 the poor guy had been given a death sentence when he'd been diagnosed with syphilis. This music, written a couple of years later, inevitably reflects the catastrophe that was in the making. The Endellions' performance of the first movement was sedate, lingering over the composer's poignant melodies, but would have benefitted from an exposition repeat. The second movement is first-cousin to a tune I'd heard earlier on Wednesday when Cordelia Williams played Schubert's Impromptu in .. er .. B flat. (Endellion programme note writers please check it out!) The greatness of the last two movements lies in the way they try to escape from the prevailing gloom but never quite manage it. Quite rightly the Endellion Quartet played them as if the composer's body was lying in state in the next room . . .
The concert ended with a performance of Janacek's Intimate Letters quartet. Written around a century later than the Schubert, Janacek's final masterpiece continued the mood of this cleverly conceived concert but ratched it up several notches. What in the Schubert had been poignant resignation became violent protest in the Janacek.This wonderful work, which exploits the individuality of each instrument like no other quartet, is modernistic, minimalistic, and highly dissonant. Yet it's also totally accessible and deeply moving. The Endellions' sizzling performance surely wrung the hearts of many in the audience but hopefully inspired tham at the same time.