The internationally renowned Coull Quartet performed works by Brahms and Ravel on Thursday 21st September, 2017 in support of the children’s cancer charity CLIC Sargent at the 4th in a series of annual charity musical evenings organised by the Worsted Weavers Guild. The performance was held in St James’ Church on the Packington Estate in Warwickshire by generous permission of Lord and Lady Aylesford. Packington Hall and its Pompeiian Room, the Capability Brown designed grounds and the Diocletian-era inspired church are not normally open to the public.
Coull Quartet Performance – St James’ Church, Packington Estate
Brahms: Quartet in B flat Op. 67
Ravel: Quartet in F
The performance was followed by a reception in the Pompeiian Room at Packington Hall.
Brahms: Quartet in B flat Op. 67 (Notes by Philip C Gallaway, Coull Quartet)
Agitato (Allegretto non troppo)
Poco Allegretto con Variazioni
Brahms once remarked ‘It is not hard to compose, but what is fabulously hard is to leave the superfluous notes under the table’. He was famously self-critical, destroying some twenty quartets before arriving at what he was prepared to call his ‘first’ quartet, and even then he spent almost twenty years revising and polishing it before allowing it to be published. His First Symphony did not appear until 1876, when he was 43; he was painfully aware that any composer writing in these genres would be judged by the monumental standards set by Beethoven a few decades earlier.
The B flat quartet was the last of Brahms’ three string quartets, completed during a pleasant summer spent near Heidelberg. On hearing the first private performance of the work by Joachim’s quartet, Clara Schumann wrote to Brahms, “I am especially pleased with the third and fourth movements, and cannot decide which delights me more, the melodious viola solo in the third, or the charming theme with its delicate tracery in the fourth. The theme, with its playful ending is pure joy.”
The principal theme of the first movement, a huntsman-like motif in 6/8 time, is matched by an equally rustic second subject in 2/4 time. In the development much play is made of these two conflicting rhythms, while the coda carries this Brahmsian concept to the extreme with alternating 6/8,3/4 and 2/4 rhythms neatly juxtaposed. The Andante is in ternary form, and features a warmly romantic melody, which is interrupted briefly by dramatic chordal outbursts. The ending of this movement is a moment of classical beauty, skilfully built around the first four notes of the main theme. The viola takes the lead in both the Agitato scherzo and its trio, a waltzing intermezzo of gentle demeanour, with the muted accompanying instruments providing an off-beat lilt. Biographer Karl Geiringer considers the fourth movement to be the quartet’s centre of gravity. It is a set of eight imaginative variations on a short, poised theme. In the final variation Brahms combines this theme with the opening, huntsman-like theme of the first movement, and, as Geiringer points out, ‘leads this joyous movement to its climax’.
Ravel Quartet in F (Notes by Philip C Gallaway, Coull Quartet) Allegro Moderato
Vif et agité
Ravel wrote his Quartet in 1902-3, when he was 27, and still a student at the Paris Conservatoire; it was first performed at the Societé Nationale in March 1904. It clearly shows the general influence of Fauré, the ‘cher maître’ to whom it is dedicated, but Ravel was more particularly influenced by
Debussy’s Quartet, written nearly ten years earlier. Although it was in no way revolutionary, Ravel’s work proved to be too unorthodox to gain the approval of his elders, which actually counted against him when he applied for the Prix de Rome. Even Fauré criticised the last movement on the grounds that it was badly balanced. Debussy, on the other hand, was full of praise for his disciple and urged him “not to change a note of your quartet”. Like Debussy, Ravel adopted the cyclic form as established by César Franck, in which each movement takes up a new transformation of a germinal theme.
The first movement is in traditional sonata form, but with a shift of emphasis in terms of tonality. For, in keeping with the modal character of the music, Ravel virtually abandons any progression towards the dominant key of C in favour of the closely-related minor keys of D and A. He extends this idea to the subsequent movements as well, and throughout the work it is the note A which has the greatest prominence, acting as a pivot between the major and minor modes.
The second movement is marked ‘Tres rythmé’ (like the Debussy Quartet) and makes its effect with flying pizzicato figures and a strong rhythmic conflict between 6/8 and 3/4 metres.
In the rhapsodic slow movement the note A pivots one step further: by switching enharmonically to B double flat it leads to G flat minor, which is then resolved into a rich G flat major for most of the movement.
The finale, however, swiftly re-establishes the tonal centre on A, around which Ravel creates another rhythmic mosaic, this time juxtaposing quintuple and triple metres, and sweeps the music back towards F major for its exhilarating conclusion.
THE COULL QUARTET
Philip Gallaway violin | Nicholas Roberts cello| Roger Coull violin | Jonathan Barritt viola
The Coull Quartet was formed in 1974 by students at the Royal Academy of Music, under the guidance of the renowned quartet leader Sidney Griller. They rapidly achieved national recognition, and were appointed Quartet-in-Residence by the University of Warwick in 1977, a post which they still hold today. The Quartet, which includes two of its founder members, has performed and broadcast extensively throughout the UK, and has made many tours of Western Europe, the Americas, Australia, China, India and the Far East.
Since the mid-1980s the Coull Quartet has made over 30 recordings featuring a wide selection of the repertoire closest to their hearts, from the complete Mendelssohn and Schubert quartets to 20th century and contemporary British chamber music. Their CD of quartets by Maw and Britten on the Somm label has received universal acclaim; in addition to being featured in ‘Editor’s Choice’ in The Gramophone, it was also described as the ‘Benchmark Recording’ by BBC Music Magazine. Their recordings of music by Sibelius and Ian Venables have also received excellent reviews in the major musical publications.
An impressive and unusual list of commissions includes works by Sally Beamish, Edward Cowie, Joe Cutler, David Matthews, Nicholas Maw, Robert Simpson and Howard Skempton. These include string quartets, quintets with piano or wind instrument, works with solo voice or choir, and even a piece for quartet and table tennis players.
The rare combination of maturity and freshness which characterises the Quartet’s performances is often singled out by reviewers:
“Here the playing is so brimful with enthusiasm and commitment, and at the same time so infused with the accumulated wisdom of three decades, that the music simply reinvents itself as it should”. (The Strad)
For more information, visit www.coullquartet.com
The children’s cancer charity CLIC Sargent is the UK’s leading cancer charity for children and young people, and their families. CLIC Sargent provides clinical, practical, financial and emotional support to help them cope with cancer and get the most out of life. CLIC Sargent aims to help the whole family deal with the impact of cancer and its treatment. CLIC Sargent is active nationally, and locally in the Warwickshire and Coventry area.