Concerts at Cratfield: Carducci String Quartet with Nicholas Daniel (oboe and cor anglais): Sunday 3 July 2016

‘One of the finest string quartets around with one of the most accomplished and world-famous woodwind players of our age’

However dank and gloomy our summer may be, there is always the consolation of looking forward every other Sunday for six weeks to a concert at St Mary’s Cratfield. The standard kept up by the organisers, who give us an alternating succession of highly distinguished and relatively new but highly talented musicians, playing familiar and unfamiliar music to entertain and stimulate us, never ceases to amaze.

The opening concert of this season certainly came into the highly distinguished category, combining one of the finest string quartets around with one of the most accomplished and world-famous woodwind players of our age. It opened literally with a flourish – the first performance of a fanfare to celebrate the replacement of the lead roof of the North Aisle stolen last summer, written by a composer closely associated with Concerts at Cratfield, Elena Langer, and scored for oboe and four triangles. It is a brilliant and highly enjoyable piece, requiring prodigies of virtuosity from the principal performer who is required to produce an extraordinary range of tonal and pitch variations extending over the full range of the instrument from bottom to very top. It could not have had a more accomplished and amazing introduction and I enjoyed it hugely as obviously did the audience generally, giving performer(s| and composer a considerable ovation.

The other work in the programme new at least to me was the Concertino for oboe and string quartet named The Flaying of Marsyas, written by David Matthews and inspired by Titian’s remarkable last painting. I have to say that, while I have never seen the original, it is an artwork which I find very difficult to look at in reproduction, depicting as it does the agonising death of Marsyas, hung upside-down and skinned alive while Apollo looks on – the penalty for challenging Apollo to a musical contest and losing. However, David Matthews has been able to find an element of consolation and even compassion culminating in Marsyas’s blood being transformed into a river, a kind of apotheosis comparable perhaps to Daphne’s transformation into a laurel tree. Matthews has certainly been able to create remarkably beautiful and moving instrumental music out of the legend, depicting in his score the whole story including Marsyas’s discovery of a reed that will play music, his gradual mastery of it, his foolhardy challenge to Apollo, the competition itself, Marsyas’s terrible death which is not underplayed and his final apotheosis It may be more correctly described as written for oboe, solo violin and string trio as the Quartet’s first violin, Matthew Denton, was required to play an equal role depicting Apollo with the oboe representing Marsyas. Needless to say it received a flawless and ultimately uplifting performance. No doubt the audience’s appreciation was enhanced, as certainly was mine, by the short spoken introduction given by Matthews himself, supplementing the already very helpful programme note extracted from one written by Mike Wheeler for its performance at the Leicesster International Music Festival in 2013.

The rest of the works in the concert were more familiar, except perhaps for the Adagio in C by Mozart written for cor anglais and three other unspecified instruments, in this case three members of the quartet, a beautiful little piece reminiscent of his choral Ave Verum Corpus. This was followed by the 11th quartet of Shostakovich, strange and melancholy, and Mozart’s Oboe Quartet, of which there is little more that can be said but that it is Mozart at his peak. The final work, played by the quartet alone, was Beethoven’s ‘Serioso’ Quartet op 95, again a strange and disturbing work which never ceases to surprise by its mixture of violence and lyricism but with its sunny cheerful ending, perhaps Beethoven saying ‘cheer up, things aren’t so bad after all’, coming as a surprise, however often it is heard.

An additional nice surprise was the very generous provision of free tea and sinfully delicious cakes provided by the parish in the interval as a gesture of thanks for the contribution of concertgoers to the cost of the roof repair. As ever, the erudite and well-written programme notes by Philip Britton for all the works other than that by David Matthews added greatly to our appreciation of the music.

Altogether a really splendid opening to the season, which promises many other delights to come..

John Sims

10 July 2016

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