Pacifica Quartet, Wigmore Hall, London
Orchestra Of The Age Of Enlightenment/Norrington, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Monday 16 February 2009
Performing end-to-end the five string quartets that Elliott Carter composed between 1951-95 might seem simply too much, with their over two hours of unremitting musical invention, harmonic dissonance and expressive intensity. But that would be to reckon without the astonishing virtuosity and insight of the Pacifica Quartet.
What singles out the approach of these four players to this supremely demanding repertoire is their exceptional ability to characterise the musical material – already evident in the eloquence and gestural energy with which cellist Brandon Vamos launched the vast, craggy structure of the String Quartet No 1 (1951). Indeed, in his String Quartet No 2 (1959) Carter imbues each of the four instruments with a different "personality". With Simin Ganatra's temperamental first violin contending with Masumi Per Rostad's romantically sighing viola, while Sibbi Bernhardsson's second violin doggedly proceeded its own way, Carter's "scenario for the players to act out with their instruments" was vividly realised.
Rarely can a standing ovation have been more arduously gained and genuinely deserved.
At Queen Elizabeth Hall, a bicentenary disinterring of Haydn's Il ritorno di Tobia rapidly established that its lengthy score contains scarcely a dull moment. It is less a dramatic oratorio than a leisurely sacred opera seria, with its dramatic events mostly happening off-stage, but reflected in a profusion of long and florid arias.
It was helped on this occasion by a lustrous line-up of soloists, led by the suavely lyric tenor of Andrew Kennedy as Tobias, with the young soprano Lucy Crowe silvery-toned as his hard-won wife Sara, and the powerful Christopher Maltman as his father – plus the marvellously stylish Swedish mezzo Ann Hallenberg as Tobit's doubting wife Anna, and the radiant Rachel Nicholls as 'Azaria' aka the Archangel Rafael, who motivates the whole thing.
Above all, this is a work by the young Haydn, which means every recitative is alive with unexpected twists, every chorus differently characterised, and every aria purposefully shaped. And so the notion of Haydn as box office death suffers a blow.
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