Perfectly balanced concert by the Brindisi Quartet

Music:BRINDISI QUARTET / ELLIOTT CARTER;Aldeburgh Festival

The further they recede in time, the less easy it seems to understand Beethoven's late string quartets. Perhaps one reason for this strange paradox is the tension which Beethoven sets up between the density of his expressive thought and the relative clarity of his structural and thematic processes. This awkward matching of content to form seemed to be the raison d'etre of a no-frills reading of the massive C sharp minor op.131 quartet given by the Brindisi Quartet at one of those perfectly planned Aldeburgh Festival concerts which beneficially juxtaposes the strange with the familiar.

The Brindisis clearly don't view the work as some kind of proto-Mahlerian confessional, loaded down with cryptic inner meanings fully comprehensible only to its creator. Theirs was a robustly classical account, reluctant to dwell on the expressive details of its decorative surface but swift and sure in its passage from the serene purity of its opening fugue to its obsessive, clod-hopping finale. In reducing it to its purely musical essence, they drew fascinating parallels between it and music of a much older age, Purcell's four-part string fantasias, three of which they delivered on their modern instruments with just the right degree of expressive nuance.

The sheer concentrated focus found in Purcell's string fantasias is the primary feature of the masterly String Quartet by the 1930s American experimentalist Ruth Crawford. The String Quartet is an exhilarating, concentrated four- movement design, propelled by a sinewy, dissonant counterpoint, an essay in an expressive volatility able to accommodate textures which run the gamut from the most ornate and baroque to those stripped bare of all melodic content.

With the benefit of hindsight, Crawford's music bears striking resemblances to that of the grand old man of American music, Elliott Carter, who himself moulded similar techniques in a language both technically rigorous and expressively even more wide-ranging. Carter's new song cycle, Of Challenge and Of Love, receiving its world premiere as the centre-piece of this concert, continues his recent "classicising" trend, of balancing complexity of thought to a relative simplicity of means, though with no compromise to his high-modernist convictions.

John Hollander's poems explore the cataclysmic, unprovoked forces of love and memory in rough-hewn but mercurially changing imagery. Lucy Shelton delivered Carter's swooping and soaring vocal lines with abundant reserves of steely accuracy and expressive power, undeterred by the characteristically independent trajectories of the piano part, full of rhetorical flourishes, complex polyrhythms, and pregnant pauses, projected with devilish accuracy and spontaneity by the ever-dependable John Constable.

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