Phillip T Young Recital Hall
August 18, 2023
There is, as we all know, a first time for everything.
Concomitantly, there must of necessity be a last time, although we are not always vouchsafed the knowledge of exactly when that will be.
It was, then, with a degree of sadness that on Friday evening my wife, Dorothy, and I attended what will for certain be our last concert given by the Lafayette String Quartet.
It could be said that, by choosing a final programme consisting of quartets by Haydn, Shostakovich and Beethoven, that the Lafayettes were playing to their strengths.
Except that to say so would be to imply that the quartet had weaknesses and, to be perfectly frank, I cannot think of a single one.
Which is not to say that they never had. I can still recall my first hearing of the quartet, very nearly thirty years ago: clearly they were four ferociously talented women, but they did, to my ears, occasionally have a tendency to try too hard.
Any such tendencies have long vanished and for at least the last quarter century, I have attended their concerts secure in the knowledge that I will be hearing the music played as well as I am ever likely to.
Sir Donald Tovey wrote of Haydn’s “Sun” Quartets, published as Op.20, that: “there is perhaps no single or sextuple opus in the history of instrumental music which has achieved so much or achieved it so quietly”. These are the quartets which set the pattern for the genre for the next two centuries and helped earn Haydn the title of “Father of the String Quartet” (although, as Peter Gammond has remarked, in sharp contrast with the usual order of things, nobody can say who the mother was).
The second of the set, in C major, is, according to William Drabkin, “one of the supreme achievements of the Classical period”.
And it was with an outstanding performance of this “diamond among its fellow precious jewels” (Kai Christiansen) that the Lafayettes opened their final programme (and, even days later, it is distressing to write those two words).
There are times — most frequently as I am actually listening to his music — when Haydn is my favourite composer. And this was certainly one of those times.
I imagine that some HIP enthusiasts might have considered the quartet’s sumptuous tone anachronistic, but I very much doubt that Haydn would have. The music smiled and the playing was elegance personified. The first movement’s development section, for example, was surprisingly speedy, but never over forceful.
The slow movement’s bold opening was almost tragic, but solace came in the shape of Pamela Highbaugh Aloni’s glorious cello — and how cellists must love this quartet, for its rôle is far beyond the mere provision of the bass line and it is, perhaps for the first time in musical history, a full partner.
The gently playful minuet followed almost with a pause and the fugal finale — with its wonderfully delineated contrapuntal lines, exceptional dynamics and tremendous, although always controlled, energy — actually danced.
I could easily have left after this performance and still have felt that the evening was worthwhile.
In a sense, one could argue that the performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet was the culmination of a long voyage. Shostakovich’s quartets have always been close to the quartet’s hearts — they were, after all, mentored by the great Rostislav Dubinsky (founding first violinist of the legendary Borodin Quartet) for over a decade, and this was a man who had played at the funerals of both Sergei Prokofiev and Josef Stalin: who better to place Shostakovich’s music in its proper context?
Some decades ago there was in the UK a series of posters advertising vodka, whose tagline was “the effect is shattering”, something which might equally well (in fact, rather better) describe the effect of Shostakovich’s Op.110, especially when played like this. The music — all five linked movements — may only last for around twenty minutes, but it carries an emotional weight seldom equalled and, for those twenty minutes the audience in the packed Philip T Young Recital Hall were spellbound.
The story of the Borodin Quartet’s playing this music to the composer in his home and then, when his reaction was to bury his head in his hands and weep, “quietly packed up their instruments and stole out of the room” is well-known; I suspect, from the lengthy silence which followed the last notes, that many in the audience felt the same way and were reluctant to break the spell with anything as crass as applause. I also suspect that there were a few moist eyes in the auditorium — and not all of them in the audience.
It may be philistinism on my part, but I have always tended to regard Beethoven’s late quartets as consisting of the “Big Three” (Opp.130, 131 and 132) and the “other two”; in my defence, the “Big Three” all break the mould by dramatically departing from the standard four movement pattern; one might say that they are iconoclastic, whereas the “other two” are subversive.
And, while the Lafayette’s final performance of Op.127 did not ultimately dispel that feeling, for its duration, it did.
The introduction was given tremendous weight, before yielding to one of Beethoven’s most delectable melodies, gorgeously played. The entire movement was characterised by its volatility, yet the delicate close was quite delicious.
If I had to choose a single word to describe the theme-and-variations slow movement, that word would undoubtedly be “sublime”. Throughout, communications and ensemble were immaculate.
The scherzo was marvellously lively, with a real bounce to the rhythm, and the trio possessed tremendous momentum. The movement even summoned up a ripple of applause, although I am sure that nobody in the audience actually believed the music was over.
The finale, with a real spring in its step, displayed a palpable sense of enjoyment and brought the evening proper to a most satisfying close.
For an encore — of course there was an encore — the quartet played the late Eugene Weigel’s transcription, made specifically for them, of Bach’s G minor Sinfonia, BWV797, the eleventh of the so-called Three Part Inventions.
This was a masterly arrangement, brilliantly disguising the fact — and one would have imagined that this made it ineligible for a string quartet version — that there are only ever three lines of music.
The performance was lovely, played with sensitivity and clearly great affection, both for the music and, one imagines, its arranger.
And so we must, however reluctantly, bid farewell to the Lafayette String Quartet, whose influence in our city will doubtless continue to be felt for some considerable time.
On a personal note, I shall never forget the many rewarding hours I have spent in the concert hall in their company, nor all the delightful conversations I have had over the years with all four.
This review has taken an inordinately long time to write, for which I apologise, but that is largely a measure of my unwillingness to admit that their career as a quartet is finally complete.
But the memory will linger.