Castalian String Quartet - Coffee Concert at The Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts (ACCA), Sussex University, Falmer
Sini Simonen (first violin), Benjamin Baker deputising for Daniel Roberts (second violin), Charlotte Bonneton (viola), Christopher Graves (cello). With Daniel Lebhardt (piano).
First half: Schubert String Trio in Bb D471, Mozart String Duo in G K 423, Beethoven String Trio in C minor Opus 9 No 3 – deputising for Haydn Quartet in C Opus 20 No 2, Elgar Quartet in E minor Opus 83. Second half: Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor Op 34.
A trapped nerve preventing Daniel Roberts from lifting an arm and ruling him out of performing at Brighton, the young Castalians had two days to act. With no deputy or ample time to rehearse their intended Haydn or Elgar, the three remaining Castalians raided their music drawers for some easy-going classical but daringly tackled some untried Beethoven.
For the audience, it was like being invited inside one of their homes and hearing music they play at their leisure when one of them is missing – except that for them, this was no relaxed sharing of morning coffee and biscuits, let alone quaffing an early sherry.
“This is one our favourite places to play. We feel are being welcomed, and that you’re listening to us. Sharing our schedules and illnesses makes our four lives interwoven. To be just three of us is completely nerve-wracking . . . but exciting! Trio is a completely different way to play, whereas a quartet sounds like four parts of eternity, like a choir. In trios, the viola is more prominent. And it’s so nice to be playing Schubert, Mozart and Beethoven.”
Instantly, sensing their courage but collective vulnerability, we were charmed and endeared by the halting, tremulous broken English of Sini Simonen, the Finnish lead fiddle, whose extra-instrumental personality had been a mystery to almost all of us. She was speaking before any music began.
That might commonly have been the entirety a musician in this situation would have mustered in explanation. But to our delight, Sini continued, recognising a responsibility to guide us through unfamiliar music in the absence of programme notes – about which she commented: “I am inspired by how Chris Darwin writes about music,” in confessing she could not emulate them.
Humour of that inspiration came straight away. “Schubert wrote this when he was 19, for his friends and family to play with him at home. It’s short but not small, in one movement. I think it’s rather like a strawberry . . . but with depth and difficulty.” Rarely does the Coffee Concert audience get to hear a string trio. But they know Schubert’s sound and language.
Then came from Sini the kind of story Darwin smilingly tells in his Origins of the Pieces programme notes. Joseph Haydn’s fellow-composer brother Michael was too ill to complete in time the last two of six string duos commissioned by the same Salzburg archbishop who had famously sacked Mozart in the very manner a football defender would clear his lines.
Mozart swept in to secure Michael’s otherwise lost income, and got some subliminal revenge. He wrote the remaining music under Michael’s name and the archbishop, none the wiser, declared these two his favourites of the set.
Sini told it funnier than that and paved the piece’s way by pointing out Mozart’s fluid interweaving violin and viola writing is in the soloistic-duo style of his great and beloved Sinfonia Concertante for these same two instruments. The kinship was thrilling as Sini and Charlotte Bonneton, Finn and Frenchwoman, both standing, both in trousers, played their way into the hearts of the CC crowd.
These are the two who catch the eye in Castalian Quartet performance. Sini’s legs and feet are never still and she is often on the edge of her seat. Charlotte’s knees and legs stay almost locked but her upper body is constantly in motion. Both men are comparatively static.
Having beguiled, they then stunned. “I sent a message to the others [2 days before the concert, remember] asking ‘Can we play this Beethoven String Trio in Bb? But it’s hard . . .’
“I’d always wanted to play it. Charlotte came straight back saying Yes. But she hadn’t even seen the parts! It’s young Beethoven but with his pieces in C minor we always feel fate, rage and essential questioning. What a guy!”
The Castalian Trio’s first movement was sonorous and argumentative, their second expansive yet spare in utterance, their scherzo incisive with its trio genial, and their finale busy with graceful tailpieces all ripening for its Haydnesque surprise soft ending. The audience cheered and applauded back at them. They recognised the fast-tracked achievement their talent had made possible
Hungarian pianist Daniel Lebhardt lent his duo partner Benjamin Baker to play second violin in what amounted to virtually an impromptu account of the big Brahms Piano Quintet. The first movement was stormy without Lebhardt’s piano domineering. Charlotte’s passionate solo was a high spot of the second, so was Sini and Christopher’s tender duo, so was the strings’ ardent conclusion.
Another sharp-bladed scherzo, the shape and character of its driving engine described by Sini, ignited by Christopher’s menacing, pizzicato – exploiting the rosin stickiness of the string near the bridge.
Daniel Lebhardt told me afterwards they plan to combine in the same concert this Piano Quintet with that of Brahms’ earthly and spiritual brother, Robert Schumann, his Opus 44 in Eb. Quite a concert experience for musician and listeners alike in prospect, with both composers’ fervent energy spilling out everywhere.
Watching Brahms Piano Quintet is strangely frustrating for lovers of the piano part. The player and keyboard is hidden behind four other people. But you can’t have the piano in front blocking the rest. The person with by far the best view was Brighton Dome and Brighton Festival chief executive, Andrew Comben.
For I think a second time at the Coffee Concerts, he was roped in to turn the pianist’s pages – of which there are many in the Brahms. He saw close-up the fireworks and devilry from Lebhardts’ hands and afterwards avowed how exciting it had been. Comben read music at university in Melbourne, plays French horn to orchestral standard and piano to Grade 7.
He drives Coffee Concert programming, with Strings Attached Society’s assistance, and he suggested this unusual and attractive one combining string quartet music with piano then added. It is he who has given Coffee Concert favourites, Trio Isimsiz, their Brighton Festival debut on May 26 evening in Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with Philharmonia Orchestra.
The uncommon chance to hear the Elgar Quartet eluded many and they will have regretted the fact. It would have been a lovely foil to Haydn’s opening C major of opus 20. We urge its appearance on the Castalians’ return!
I have one frivolous musing to share with you. Had second fiddle Daniel Roberts been fit to play, we might not have been able to vouch for his performance on the (very early) morning after Wales sensationally overturned Six Nations favourites England in Cardiff to uphold their head coach Warren Gatland’s bold title assertion, pre-tournament.
Rugby is Daniel’s game, Welsh his nationality, obligatory the traditional manner of Welsh celebration, excessive the expectations of it after such a result.
Somehow I imagined his compatriot rugby friends saying in the forerunning week to that match and this concert, “Surely, Daniel, you cannot look us in the eye and justify saying that on the morning after we have won – or lost – you are going to go out somewhere on English soil and glorify the music of an English composer?”
Next Coffee Concert (final one of the season) at ACCA (11am) on March 24: Aquinas Piano Trio. Haydn in E major Hob XV28, Mendelssohn in D minor Op 49 No 1, Schumann in F major Op 60 No 2. Two less people obscuring the piano!