One strand of the quartet's work is to experiment with radical approaches to quartet playing. Sometimes these are historically- and early recording-inspired, but not necessarily. The following material is designed to give an approachable introduction to some of the ideas we are working with!
The group has a link with the music department at King's College London, and has also been involved with the AHRC-funded research project 'Transforming 19th Century HIP', based at Oxford University. (See https://c19hip.web.ox.ac.uk/home). This represents a rare, in-depth and mutual collaboration between academic musicology and professional chamber music performance.
We are happy to present any of this material in pre-concert or interval talks, if appropriate. Extra articles can also be found on the blog.
Introduction: Historically Anachronistic Performance?
Nowadays, history is an important part of listening to classical music. Of course, like all music, we actually experience it live, in the moment. But because classical music also tends to be old music, it brings with it all sorts of historical intrigue. Fascinating information about composers, performers and pieces is everywhere, and very often these insights go hand in hand with hearing the music. Just for starters, think of radio broadcasts, CD booklet notes, concert programmes and reviews.
It's certainly not confined to the experience of listening. Young musicians grow up with the idea that this historical context is an important part of giving a 'faithful rendering' of the score, and that it will help us do justice to what the composer meant by the notes on the page. And now there is a whole ideology of professional performance that is built on the idea of recovering information about how scores used to sound....
1) Evidence, Taste and "Romantic" Style
It hardly needs saying that these days, an un-stylistic performance of baroque music leaves many of us listeners feeling a bit short-changed. On the other hand, a clean and rubato-free performance of, say, the Elgar String Quartet, is perfectly acceptable, and would rarely result in anything even close to a raised eyebrow. But it is every bit as historically 'inaccurate' as heavily played early music - perhaps even more so, as we have real recordings of Elgar and a much clearer knowledge of his performance tendencies. In practice, then, the idea of historical context works in all sorts of different ways. In the case of Elgar, historical context often means a general sense of the composer's emotional world and society, covering Edwardian culture and the Great War, but staying away from the more specific features of contemporary string playing. Contrast this with the primarily treatise-dependent approach to baroque music and it is clear that historical information about music seems to function entirely differently in different repertories...
2) "But all went well and the ensemble was perfect"
It's often true that playing in a modern quartet essentially means to play with ‘perfect ensemble’. Synchronisation, blend, unified phrasing, and discipline are prerequisites for the performance of the genre’s masterpieces. There appears to be an unspoken, collective understanding that any group without this special quality of ensemble may be many things - exciting, passionate, moving, effective - but it cannot truly be ‘a quartet’.
Historically, though, things are not so straightforward. The title of this section comes from a review of a concert by the Bohemian Quartet in 1899, whose recording of Dvorak Op.96 we have already encountered. Such a throwaway comment would hardly require attention but for the existence of the group’s frequently ‘un-together’ recordings. And this mismatch of words and sounds raises an important question: has ‘perfect ensemble’ always meant what we think it means?
3) Haydn and the Art of (Theatrical) Conversation
If you go to a quartet concert and there is a piece by Haydn on the menu, it is more than likely that a programme note will refer to the music’s conversational qualities. If there is also something by Beethoven, the notes will probably reference the fact that he fundamentally advanced the genre, turning a private, conversational language into a more serious, concert-dwelling one. In a way, the performance acts out this neat historical narrative, illustrating the string quartet’s transition from private chamber to public concert hall.
These sorts of historical programmes, offering surveys of particular genres and styles, were popularised by Joseph Joachim in the nineteenth century. Unsurprisingly, the quartet concert has enjoyed a long and fruitful partnership with this construction: not only does the genre offer an appealing historical story, it also makes great use of the idea of ‘classics’ – those great works that act as important milestones, breakthrough moments in the genre’s progressive development. It allows listeners to make connections, contrasts and contexts between pieces: who was influenced by whom? What does one composer’s language bring to the genre as a whole? Who were the revolutionaries? Which composers understand the spirit of ‘true quartets’, and which had to struggle a little more to find it?
What interests me is that the job of illustrating changes in social or historical setting is not confined to programme notes, but can be – and often is – done through performance style...
4) Absent Performance
Performance used not to really figure at all in histories of music. (Amazingly, for years there wasn't even an entry under 'performance' in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians). Broadly speaking, older writings tended to see the history of music as a goal-directed story of progress, marked along the way by great works and great men, yet (somewhat paradoxically) underpinned by a concurrent belief in gradual, organic change. Perhaps in the same way that aspects of the old symphonic tradition migrated from the concert platform to the cinema soundtrack, quite a lot of these ideas – which are now pretty unfashionable in scholarship – moved into the public domain, and can still be found in programme notes, promotional material and TV and radio broadcasts.
It's worth noting that this familiar way of writing about Classical music makes a small but important imaginative leap: from thinking about what a composer wrote (whether in notation or words) straight to the effects on listeners. Which listeners, though? Indeed, quite a large part of the story of composition has encompassed changes – often quite radical ones – in how famous pieces were received over time...
Together in Music Conference paper, April 2018
"PERFECT ENSEMBLE: HISTORICAL PARADOXES IN THE RHETORIC AND PRACTICE OF STRING QUARTET PLAYING"
Also available here: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1rF4Lfbvl4D9X_P8wxGwTi3dGh5acObf3 (Word Document & PowerPoint Presentation)