If you’re ever in south Devon and come across a guide dog with a hollow look in his eyes, puffing twitchily on a roll-up, shoulders hunched, padding through the streets like a defeated cur, that’ll probably be the animal I saw freaking out at a performance of Ligeti’s second string quartet last summer.
Time and again, the piece would explode into some ponticello frenzy. Time and again, the spooked pooch would leap to her feet darting glances around as she tried to figure out just what the hell was going on. Her companion’s desperately whispered soothing words got her to the end in one piece. But that old self-assurance, that doggy confidence? Shot to pieces. Never the same again.
Indeed, it was shortly after the group had found out they had been selected for the scheme about a year ago that I first met them. Or I should say, first met them as a group, since I had already crossed paths with a couple of them from my own playing work. It was clear even then that they were pretty serious in their ambitions as a quartet specialising in contemporary music. I thought they might be worth keeping an eye on, so went to hear them play and interview them for Classical Music magazine (I urge you to read the interview here).
And here they are now – violinists Mandhira de Saram and Patrick Dawkins, viola player Richard Jones and cellist Val Welbanks – sharing a recital with guitarist Paul Norman. These PLG concerts are invariably a showcase for more than one performer and on this occasion there’s a packed Purcell Room for the programme of music by Joe Cutler, Ed Hughes, Stephen Dodgson, György Ligeti, Jonathan Harvey and Noel Coward.
No, of course not Noel Coward! But almost. Proving that contemporary musicians can have a bit of fun as well, the quartet star as members of the loopy Bliss family in a scene from the play Hay Fever, as imagined by the actual composer of the piece, Laura Bowler. It’s a nice little divertissement – it would be a neat entr’acte at Gerald Barry’s Importance of Being Earnest, due for staging at the ROH/Linbury in June – requiring the players to walk on to a set (complete with table set for breakfast), speak the odd line (‘Dahling!’), pour and slurp tea and pout a bit. All the while, their conversations and disputes are conducted via Bowler’s quirky music (is that a quote from I Get a Kick Out of You tucked away in there?)
While there may not have been quite as many* laughs in the rest of the programme, there was certainly just as much variety. (Does that joke work? You know: Variety/variety? I’m hearing guffaws but maybe I’m imagining things…) More to the point, the death of Jonathan Harvey in December meant there was a sense, although not exaggerated, of memorial about the evening. Both Norman and the Ligetis played pieces of his in the concert, and while the tributes to him in the press and the general ether have been heartfelt, it was good to hear these performances – particularly the contribution of cellist Val Welbanks in some testing moments of his second quartet, high up and unwavering. Ringing.