Brighton reviews: Quatuor Arod and Strings Attached Coffee Concerts

Quatuor Arod © Julien BenhamouQuatuor Arod © Julien Benhamou
Quatuor Arod © Julien Benhamou
Review by Richard Amey. Quatuor Arod at The Dome/Strings Attached Coffee Concerts, at The Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts (ACCA), Sussex University, Falmer. In return appearance on Sunday 11 December 2022 (11am), venue switched to Meeting House on the campus, owing to sudden ceiling maintenance work on ACCA’s auditorium.

Jordan Victoria, Alexandre Vu violins, Tanguy Parisot viola, Jérémy Garbarg cello (2 years ago replaced Samy Rachid, their April 2018 appearance cellist. String quartets by Felix Mendelssohn, Op44 No 1 of 3 (1838); Benjamin Attahir, Al’Asr (2017-18); Debussy No 1 of 1 (1893)

For myriad reasons, ditch any assumptions that this was a customary Coffee Concerts experience, for audience or musicians. Sizzling, searing performance flew in the face of an uncomfortable venue upheaval on then the coldest British December morning for more than, I gather, 12 years.

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A chilling scenario, when any attempt to generate warmth or sensuality with string, wood and horsehair was to risk witnessing its elements freeze in the air above, then sprinkle the floor in ice shards. Yet the four men at work slaved beyond the call of duty or consumer entitlement to create for their gloved, coated and hatted audience more than sufficient elevation to get them to their transport home with blood re-circulating.

Their achievement was even, in sheer defiance of the finger-numbing, mind-dulling performing conditions, to create time-suspending magic in the sultry middle two Debussy movements. But it’s necessary to tell this story from the start . . .

You are four Frenchmen: two Parisians, a Breton, a Burgundian. On the night your football team is defeating England 2-1 in the World Cup last eight, you’re on Eurostar speeding from your capital to the frozen north of the Sussex coast. But you’re looking forward to playing again to one of the best chamber audiences in England.

Your Air B&B in Brighton manages 6 degrees on your bedroom thermometer. All four of you sleep in your coats. You might speculate cynically that the landlord, assumed patriotic English, switched off your heating at the final whistle. You arrive to rehearse at the venue and try literally to warm up privately, in an improvised green room downstairs that’s actually a maximum-windowed function room seen from the public loos.

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Upstairs, the audience are trickling in, having walked the 200 yards from the abandoned ACCA to a large, circular, further prime 1960s Sir Basil Spence architecture: a multi-faith church scarcely any had ever seen before. Penitential wooden chairs, a few benches in tiers, set in the ¾-round. The quiet low-roaring heating making no impression on a brick and steel space dominated by a large suspended cross, three icon illustrations, and a semi-circular, north-facing wall of massed small rectangular windows, in random opal or yellow, orange or green, red or blue. The ambience, this bone-chilling morning, is of a vain attempt to spread light and coloured radiance in the hope of heat. It might have achieved 20% success in this!

[Back to the quartet back downstairs] In this cold, how are you going to keep your fingers moving? And your brain ever-ready, bar by bar? If you held a British Musicians Union card, you’d refuse even to unlock your instrument case, let alone attempt to tune up together. In certain circumstances, city subway busking might be a mortal necessity, but here and now transmitting great art is simply not on. But we are professionals and a paying audience will be waiting.

We’ll keep our sweaters on under our jackets, they’ve given us two portable heaters by our four chairs, we’ve got to see what happens. It’s one mid-brown roll-neck sweater, a grey Chicago University sweat-top, one dark jersey with light, narrow, French horizontal stripes, and one sweater in three panels of subdued tones.

“Being French, they still looked stylish”, admired someone. Indeed, violist Tanguy Parisot – recognisable since his last time here for his soulful upward looks, has grown a dark full beard. He looks like Debussy himself, minus the hair parting. Alexandre Vu retains his sunny 2018 smiles, though this time he reminds one of a far-eastern Tottenham Hotspur striker. These two are flanked by the intensely concentrated Jordan Victoria and relatively new cellist Jérémy Garbarg.

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Quatour Arod are trying these three pieces together for the first time. But they’ve decided against playing Debussy first, and instead the Mendelssohn. Leader Jordan Victoria told me afterwards, a) they thought better to begin with the earliest-composed item, and b) this was their record coldest concert anywhere, ever.

A benefit accrued. After Garbarg greeted the audience with a grin, and, “Welcome to a French morning in Brighton!” the verve of Mendelssohn’s opening four-way tremolando felt like a gust from the Arctic. But the ensuing urgent, vivacious music must have galvanised musicians and listeners alike, as though an emergency distribution of silk and duckdown thermal mountainwear had swept around the room.

This commenced a morning of ironical contradictions as art defied adversity in this setting. Mendelssohn wrote this Quartet on his honeymoon. Much fun’s obviously being had – but surely not in an Icelandic holiday shack with a stuttering woodburner before the invention of duvets?

Benjamin Attahir’s second Brighton hearing of his Al’Asr requires the listener to prepare for scorching Arabic afternoon heat, in which to undergo in prayer the soul-searching assessment of whether a life supposedly devoutly lived has actually included selflessness. In his spoken intro, Garbarg shared with the audience the absurd impossibility of replicating that climatic setting.

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And Debussy’s singular Quartet is cherished for its internal furnace of evocative, simmering French feeling and sensuousness which our British imagination could never associate with winter.

Quatuor Arod (‘Swift, Agile Quartet’ in mythical Tohirric language) seem kindred in title to Mendelssohn typical as this, with their bubbling and urgent opening movement and almost ceaseless verve and elan in the finale. These, plus Arod’s leisurely minuet and their quietly absorbing, four-stranded filigree andante added up to a rousing audience reception. Yes, similar would have happened had this music concluded the concert as originally intended, but two curtain calls and nearly a third was gladness for more than the chance merely to warm up hands in applause.

The musicians’ own gratitude girded them for their task. Hands strayed towards their heaters at opportune moments but the job in hand next, the Attahir, written when 28, was nothing less than a modern, East-West cross-cultural tour de force they will record commercially next year (They’re on top French label Erato). Since Arod commissioned it, and Attahir in 2019 reached five takes on this hallowed Qur’ān prayer sequence, each for a different-sized ensemble, the composer and the Arod, Garbarg told me, have co-managed the initial evolution of the work, exchanging ideas about the best sequence of light and shade darkness and light, for maximum progressive and accumulative impact.

It’s going well. The Coffee Concerts audience’s enthusiasm even outstripped that for the Mendelssohn. Like me, many will have heard it here 4½ years ago. Its technical and expressive power has grown. It dramatically transcended the unsympathetic performing and listening circumstances.

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Its waves of sheer intensity of sound and the instrumental activity generating it, was additionally electrifying for the audience for a further reason this concert was special. Since the Coffee Concerts switched to ACCA in November 2016, it’s always been theatre seating. This ¾-round seating in the Meeting House conjured the compelling closeness and extra musician-audience connectivity these concerts bore originally in Hove, then Brighton, before their enforced exile from the Corn Exchange being rebuild.

The acute weather and a disrupted train service reduced this Coffee Concert crowd to half its pre-pandemic level with 30% deciding on the day. They witnessed Al’ Asr declare itself a leading contemporary string quartet experience. And if Victoria, Arod’s lead violinist with such beautiful delivery and articulation, bears a now classic Gallic-Arabic countenance, that is as it should be in representing our world as it strives for genuine inter-cultural awareness and appreciation.

Some of my listening notes offer soundbites: “cello plucked like an aod [middle-eastern lute] . . . cello harmonics ping through texture . . . viola attacks in root double-stoppings . . . stabs from vlns . . . cello improvisatory, then groans, slows music, others concur . . . rest join 1st violin’s singing – high harmonics eerie, eastern modal . . . quavers motor-rhythm, ever more gripping . . . persistent threat, sliding release into sonorous harmony, sorrow, anguish . . . fugato . . . bouncing bows rhythm punched by cello. . . jabbing retribution (selfishness just won’t do) . . . power, anger.”

Then the Arod’s Debussy, with some breathtaking extremes of near silence and ecstatic vigour, emphatically clinched their own case. And the triumphant totality of this ill-starred Sunday heightened – among any who thought it – the relief that this hadn’t been a concert to be endured somewhere else, perhaps suffering in powerless, warmthless, waterless conditions of war.

Richard Amey

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The next Coffee Concert is expected to be back at ACCA on Sunday 22 January (11am) – the return of Philip Higham, solo cello with this wide-ranging programme: Domenico Gabrielli, Ricercare per violoncello solo (1689) Nos 1-3; JS Bach, Suite No 9 in Dm BWV 1008; Joseph dall’Abaco, Capricci Nos 2 & 4; Luciano Berio, Les Mots sont allé’s . . . ; Max Reger, Suite No 3 in Am Op131c.

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