Beethoven’s deafness was a noisy affair, with his dying hearing-sensors sending dreadfully garbled messages to his brain, but you’d never know it from the magisterial poise of the music he went on writing.
Bedrich Smetana, on the other hand, made a deliberate choice to translate the tinnitus which heralded his deafness into an explicitly musical form. The movement with which he concludes his String Quartet No 1 is marked ‘vivace’, and it really is vivacious until a sudden high E comes in like a dentist’s drill, bringing everything to a juddering halt, after which the instruments sound as if they are tiptoeing away.
The young Navarra Quartet presented this moment with fine panache, after delivering a convincing account of this autobiographical work. ‘I wanted to paint in sounds the course of my life,’ wrote this Czech composer, and though the Prague chamber music society dismissed it as impossible to play, it is now deservedly one of the best-loved works in the chamber repertoire. The Navarras didn’t quite catch the heel-clicking precision needed for the first of the country dances, but in every other respect they did it proud, bringing burning intensity to the ‘in memoriam’ for the composer’s dead wife, and a generous warmth to its evocations of village life.
They had begun their concert with Haydn’s Quartet Opus 54 No 2, and whoever penned the unsigned programme-note – one of the players? – deserves praise for a singular piece of illumination. It pointed out that in Haydn’s day quartets were mostly played by amateurs at home, where there would at best be just one skilled violinist: this work’s Adagio – one of the most sublime Haydn ever wrote – calls for extreme expressiveness from the first violin, while the other instruments provide the simplest of backdrops.
In point of fact, though the rest of the work was ably played, we didn’t get that sublimity from the Navarras: they had bags of vitality, but not that subtle synergy which distinguishes the most seasoned quartets. And by ending with an underwhelming account of Beethoven’s late A minor Quartet, with its transcendent Adagio, they demonstrated how far they have yet to go. This is holy ground, and only those able to penetrate its chiaroscuro mysteries should tread it.