October 18 2020
St Mary’s Church, Nottingham
Review: William Ruff
Exploratory, intelligent playing from the Villiers Quartet
There was more than a touch of the heroic about the Villers Quartet’s concert in Nottingham on Sunday. It was a case of the Arts defying the hidden enemy and providing emotional sustenance to an audience grown accustomed to music as a phenomenon conveyed by screens and loudspeakers. The Villiers have a well-deserved reputation not only as distinguished players but also as warm, friendly communicators and this skill at drawing people into their performances was much appreciated by the small, masked and socially distanced audience. The big church acoustic may occasionally have robbed their musical voices of nuance but there was never any doubt about the immediacy and vitality with which they projected their enthusiasm for the programme.
They started with Benjamin Britten’s arrangement of Purcell’s Chacony in G minor. It sounds smoother, more dynamically prescribed than the original but it made an effective opener: simple enough at the start but full of those momentary dissonances that shout ‘Purcell’ to the listener. This – and the Purcell Fantasias which followed – is music which constantly catches you off guard: you think you know where you are and then the music shifts and enters strangely unbalanced territory. However, the Villiers Quartet skilfully held the predictable and the unexpected in perfect equilibrium.
Next came the slow movement of Beethoven’s 3rd ‘Razumovsky’ Quartet with which the Villiers probed into the heart of the composer’s icy, lonely sound world, full of unresolved angst and regularly punctuated by the strangely emphatic pizzicato cello. The sense of restricted movement, of losing one’s sense of direction gave the music a particular relevance.
Haydn’s ‘Sunrise’ Quartet came as a welcome mood-lifter to end the programme. It gets its nickname from a stunning opening in which the first violin plays a long melody emerging mysteriously from sustained chords in the lower voices. The whole quartet reveals Haydn at his most inventive and unpredictable, his shifting moods and rhythms constantly taking the listener by surprise. Far from laying down the law to performers about how the music should be performed, Haydn seems actively to be inviting different interpretations. How fast should the finale go? What do the pauses in the slow movement mean?
The Villiers spoke about their experiments with alternative approaches in rehearsal. This delight in exploration, in conveying the intelligence and emotional vitality of Haydn’s invention, was clear to anyone listening: further proof of why we need live performance in these troubled times.
The Villiers Quartet
Katie Stillman, violin I
Tamaki Higashi, violin II
Carmen Flores, viola
Rebecca Knight, cello