Dante Quartet / Van Dyk, Christ Church, Spitalfields, London
Wednesday 26 December 2007
Beethoven's String Quartet in A Minor and T S Eliot's Four Quartets are both majestic works that speak with oracular force, and there is evidence of a historical link. At the time this poem-sequence was germinating in Eliot's mind, he was listening to Beethoven's work, and wondering whether he might be able to get something of its "heavenly gaiety", its sense of relief after immense suffering, into verse at some future date.
The Spitalfields Festival programme note pushes this further, saying that Eliot "no doubt sat intently and alone with his recordings as he wrote this meditation". Well, maybe.
But it was a nice idea to put these works together, particularly in the form conceived by the Dante Quartet and the actor Walter van Dyk, with movements of the Beethoven alternating with the poems even if each of these is an entire quartet in itself. And since Eliot had constructed the first, "Burnt Norton", in part from discarded lines from his play Murder in the Cathedral, that surely gives the green light for its declamation by an actor.
Or does it? There are reasons why an actor should tread carefully. One is that people who know the poems which are, after all, one of the key works of the 20th century will already have an ideal voice in their heads. Another is that we know how Eliot himself declaimed his poetry with a grimly vibrant resonance. The moment Van Dyk opened his mouth, it was clear that his voice wasn't going to work. His manner was that of a benign pastor, but you felt he was just reading the lines, rather than embodying them.
Moreover, while the musicality of the poems resides in the fact that each of their "movements" has its own colour and character, his tone was relentlessly the same. The poetry derives its momentum from its subtle ebbs and flows, but for Van Dyk, each line was a separate entity, and the stress and, therefore, the meaning was his, not Eliot's.
The music itself was curate's eggish: this church has a terrible acoustic for string quartets, but even so the Dante Quartet smudged this great work's contours, at times beyond recognition.
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