Review: Finzi Quartet

JOE CONWAY: ‘As soon as they began their performance of Haydn’s Quartet in D Opus 20 No 4, it was clear that the four players’ had ‘notched up hundreds of hours of hard practice together’.

Debussy emmanuel Finzi Quartet Schubert United Reformed Chuch

29th April, 8pm at Emmanuel United Reformed Church. £12/£10/£6

It's a tough old world out there for newly established classical music groups, string quartets in particular.  The ones that go on to survive and blossom may well be those that have some unique selling point or something that makes them stand out from the crowd.

When the Finzi Quartet walked on stage for Thursday's concert at Emmanuel URC it seemed to me that the players had already gone a long way towards achieving an image all of their own. For a start they're all girls of a similar age, they were uniformly dressed in violet tops and full-length black skirts, and even before a note was played they seemed to project an aura of purposeful unity. 

This was reinforced by something which may well have been accidental but which seemed significant. Usually if you look in the programme book you'll find the names and biogs of the performers, but on Thursday this information was conspicuous by its absence. Which suggested that the players maybe want to emphasise their unity rather than their individuality. (Yes, that last sentence is a bit over the top but I think I'll leave it in!).

Certainly as soon as they began their performance of Haydn's Quartet in D Opus 20 No 4, it was clear that either the four players shared very similar musical backgrounds or that they've notched up hundreds of hours of hard practice together. Or possibly both. This particular work is full of unusual rhythms, quirky detours into unexpected keys, and eccentricities of all kinds. And only a unified vision plus exemplary preparation could have created a performance that was so convincing and satisfying.

One of the really special features of the Finzi Quartet's playing is that so much of it takes place on the edge of pure silence and stillness. Many of the intricate phrases of the Haydn grew out of nothing and returned to nothing, emphasising the speculative and ethereal qualities of the music. Hand in hand with this goes dynamics. Moving in volume from the almost inaudible to the almost overwhelming is another of the quartet's special qualities.

This was heard at its most dramatic in the opening crescendo of Schubert's Quartettsatz. This magical fragment of an unfinished quartet looks ahead to the composer's awesome last three quartets. For much of the time it alternates between a first violin tune of heavenly length, as the saying goes, and nervous twitches from the lower strings. Leader Sara Wolstenholme's playing here was so full of elegance and grace that we could well have had the exposition repeated. (Yes, I did discover the players' names eventually!) 

As well as the two classical pieces the Finzi Quartet played two works written around the turn of the 20th century. Frank Bridge's Three Idylls began with a reflective viola solo played by Ruth Gibson but eventually ended in a blaze of enthusiasm. I didn't think I'd heard this slightly obscure piece before but the second Idyll was familiar enough. It provides the theme which Bridge's famed pupil Benjamin Britten chose when he wrote his stunning Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge.

Debussy's G minor Quartet gave the Finzis more opportunities to demonstrate their combined and individual skills in a scintillating performance. Their finest hour came in the slow movement, kicked off ravishingly by second violinist Natalie Dick, and with a wistful second theme played by the quartet's excellent cellist Lydia Shelley.

One last question was on my mind as I emerged onto a wet Trumpington Street. Why has this gifted young quartet chosen to use the name of a composer who didn't write any? Answers to this riddle in the space below please.