REVIEW: Modigliani String Quartet, Coffee Concert, Brighton Dome and Corn Exchange

I’VE thought of a nickname for Ravel’s String Quartet in F major after hearing yet another fine ensemble play it at the Coffee Concerts. ‘The Four Winds’.

In this compelling performance, each of the four movements had a different atmosphere, caressed or swept across by Gallic zephyrs, breezes, gusts or gales of Mediterranean, Provencal, Pyrennean or Brittanic moving air. Actually, choose your own province, and season, such are the freely interpretable pictorial and sensual regions to which Ravel intends to take us and for which, this time, the Modiglianis provided our transport.

The first movement conveyed Ravels’ elusive yet lingering and mainly contented reveries. The pizzicato-frequented second movement sounded like four guitars one minute, a quartet of harps the next. The third, nocturnal with the modal evocation of pain Vaughan Williams soaked up and brought home to England from his lessons from Ravel. Then the finale literally blew us away.

It was a concert of just two programmed works conveying intensity in both commitment and execution by lead violin Philippe Bernhard, second fiddle Loïc Rio, tall violist Laurent Marfaing and cellist François Kieffer. Black suits, black open-necked shirts, no verbal comment until Bernhard introduced the encore, and no movement around the stage before the audience in the round, owing to Marfaing requiring his own-height stool.

Reading the names, you can detect three likely Frenchmen in a quartet almost 10 years old who tucked under their belts during their first three years competition first prizes in Holland, Italy and the US. Four years ago they began recording what proved to be four award-winning CDs. They have played the principal chamber music venues of London, Paris, Amsterdam, New York, Brussels and Vienna.

So on this particular frozen morning, it was not Ludwig but Louis van Beethoven who turned on the fire for us. His shorter and strikingly concise F major Quartet Opus 135. Readers may remember that for me, hearing a late Beethoven quartet defies written description. Very little in any music comes near his constant originality of form and ambition, its utter confidence of expression and musical language, its rarification in spirit and reach, its mastery of absolutely everything.

Suffice it to say that only good quartets dare perform late Beethoven and to hear an excellent one like this one do so – or even great ones past on disc —merely make description all the more impossible. Late Beethoven quartets are a transcendental experience rewarding on a plane of the highest possible intellectual and emotional meditation.

My aim is not to convey my experience of any performance to you but to urge you to seek your own experience of this music which is in a sphere, let alone a class, of its own.

Schubert was a young man playing in family quartets at the time that his and Vienna’s great hero, Beethoven, was writing these farewells to his inferior humans. Franz composed for quartet what Otto Deutsche have since catalogued as D 89: a set of Five Minuets and 5 German dances.

Music that, unless I had unearthed it for you here, would probably pass you by unnoticed, as it have done me. But it’s reported here because as an encore the audience made them simply obliged to provide, the Modiglianis shared their discovery of the first Minuet of the collection.

Like his great Quartetsatz of his latter years, it is in C minor. A serious Minuet, therefore, and one with two trios instead of one, thus gaining it an exceptional substance and magnetism. Each return of the main theme satisfied a deepening craving.

The Quartetsatz D703 was the start of yet another unfinished Schubert work destined to be great. This Minuet would surely have sat suitably in a four-movement work begun by the Satz. But how come? That Schubert so early in his career was already writing a piece as this, compatible with something the product of his greater accomplished subsequent years, speaks of a mind, heart and spirit miraculous.

Thus ended the current Coffee Concert season, so admirably and importantly projected now by The Dome with indispensible assistance from Strings Attached. Next season is assured and awaiting announcement of content. Meanwhile, this spring, a sure highlight of the Brighton Festival to come will be the Elias Quartet, Coffee Concert favourites (two of them French sisters), continuing their Beethoven series.

Richard Amey