By kind invitation of Ken Robinson MLA
Beethoven Quartet Op.59 No.1
Rimsky-Korsakov et al Les Vendredis: a selection of short pieces from 1890s St Petersburg
Haydn Quartet Op.74 No.3 ‘The Rider’
Winner of the 1988 London International String Quartet Competition and now in its twenty-fourth concert season, the RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet is one of Europe’s most successful ensembles internationally recognised for its beauty of sound, clarity of texture and integrity of interpretation within an unusually wide and varied range of repertoire.
‘this committed ensemble feels more galvanised and exciting than ever‘ – The Strad
As part of Belfast Music Society’s ongoing commitment to make chamber music more widely available to people throughout Belfast, the Vanbrugh quartet presented concerts and workshops in North Belfast, working with the junior string ensemble at Cavehill Primary School and performing for children at Holy Cross Boys Primary School and residents of Clifton House Nursing Home.
A night of harmony and delicacy of phrasing at Parliament Buildings
The programming of Belfast Music Society’s Summer Celebrity Recital, held on Saturday on one of the most summery nights of the year, in one of the most sylvan settings, Stormont, was interesting.
The Vanbrugh Quartet, famous for their interpretations of Beethoven, produced a moving and serious first half with his Rasumovsky quartet, Op59 No1. Then we got the lollipops, namely Borodin’s beautiful – and schmaltzy – Nocturne, some Russian dances and a charming Serenade produced by various composers in St Petersburg in the 1880s for Les Vendredis, their Friday night get-togethers. Finally, we heard a marvellously unclichéd performance of Haydn’s quartet in G minor, known as The Rider because of its galloping rhythms. The most challenging piece was, of course, the Beethoven, which one member of the audience summed up perfectly as “the headmaster speaking”. It starts with tonal ambiguity in the middle of a musical conversation, covers some very emotional material in the Adagio – which Beethoven described as “a willow or acacia at my brother’s grave” = and finishes with a Russian folk tune.
The Vanbrugh quartet produced a delicacy of phrasing and detail plus a warmth of tone that gave every harmonic and mood change its full value. Happily, the acoustic in the Great Hall allowed us to savour the richness of this perfect string playing. Gregory Ellis and Keith Prowse (violins), Simon Aspell (viola) and Christopher Marwood, who manages to make the ‘cello’s rare melodies sing, deserved the long applause from a large audience.
The Belfast Music Society held their Summer Celebrity Recital, by now an annual event, in Parliament Buildings, Stormont last Saturday evening. The Vanbrugh String Quartet provided a rich mosaic of music, worthy of the elegant surroundings of that significant space.
Parliament Buildings are a familiar sight to most people from Northern Ireland, and its stately façade and sweeping grounds dominate the landscape from quite a distance on a clear day. The evening of the recital was warm and dry and stayed that way. This was welcome, because my guest and I chose to walk to the concert and back from the near (but not too near) Stormont Hotel. There’s something a bit worthy and gratifying about making that sort of effort in the name of chamber music. Not quite singing for one’s supper, but along the lines of marching for one’s music. Then again, given the context, maybe not.
In any case, it was good to sit down and enjoy the grand concert setting which was the main foyer of the building. I was concerned about the acoustic, with so much stone (the building material, not the man who famously made an unwelcome visit to the place some years back). Up close, however, the walls are more porous that you’d imagine, and the sound had a more bloom than boom, and there was real clarity in what we heard. Trust this building to be, like the people of Ulster themselves, less hard-edged in real life than sometimes portrayed to the world at large.
Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 59 No. 1 was first in the programme, and the Vanbrughs were warm and communicative from the outset, with a strong sense of the intricate musical lines and shapes of Beethoven’s incomparable writing. There are symphonic and operatic moments in his quartets, but they are still utterly made for the sublime combination of two violins, viola and cello, where each player is a soloist and their performance hangs on the unspoken communication that develops between players so closely associated. Each musician brings their experience, artistry and personality, and the hope is that those elements gel, and the four individuals play as one. It won’t have been lost on many in those surroundings that this is exactly the kind of harmony needed in the other work that happens at Stormont. Perhaps the ‘vibes’ will linger…
After the interval, the concert continued with shorter, lighter works by Borodin and a trio of Russian composers who met regularly in the 19th century to play music and enjoy performing together. What these pieces lacked in depth, they made up for in lightness of mood. The quartet were correspondingly light in their approach and Haydn’s String Quartet in g minor, op. 74 no. 3 ended the night’s music while there was still light in the sky. The walk back gave another opportunity to see Stormont from different angles and distances.
The Belfast Music Society is about to celebrate 90 years of unbroken service to music lovers in Belfast. They began in 1921, the year the first Northern Irish Parliament met (though not at Stormont) as a branch of the British Music Society. Chamber music is about collaboration, and this is something that the now independent Belfast Music Society has always been very good at. Their partnerships with Queen’s University and the BBC, along with their active promotion and encouragement of young local talent has been a key component of their longevity. Their principal funding comes from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, and with the continued support of these and other partners, the BMS will hopefully continue for at least another 90 years.