Lammermuir: Navarra Quartet

Dunbar Parish Church

The Navarra Quartet like to do things their own way. At least that was the impression taken from the second of their two appearances at this year’s Lammermuir Festival, in which they teamed up with BBC SSO principal viola Scott Dickinson for Dvorak’s “American” String Quintet, but not before marking their pitch big time in Mozart’s String Quartet No 16 in E-flat.

The latter was subjected to a show of bravado bordering on assault. It was, I am sure, entirely well-meaning, given the unsettling questioning and ambiguities which Mozart piles into his intriguing score. But in over-egging these – as in the lurching semitone slides that veered towards parody – what was perhaps intended as illuminating exaggeration transmitted more as mischief.

Whether the resulting instability of tuning and confusion of pulse was symptomatic is a moot question. It was a brave and challenging approach, but one that ultimately shot itself in the foot. 

Before the Dvorak, Ivan Moseley’s Ah Robin, which takes 16th century composer William Cornysh’s original song and puts it through a 21st century wringer, transforming it – rather beguilingly – out of all recognition, afforded a moment for recovery. Moseley’s ingenious transformations, ending in a whimsical puff of smoke, sat perfectly with the Navarra’s gauche demeanour. 

And it laid the ground for an easier acceptance of their Dvorak, which was again subject to spontaneous bursts of eccentricity, but this time in a piece that could easily support it. The finest moments were towards the end, the gorgeous sonorities of the two violas and cello in the Larghetto variations, and the irresistible thrills of the final Allegro giusto. 

The encore brought yet another unconventional touch, the haunting chromatic non sequiturs of the 16th century reactionary Carlo Gesualdo recast for string quintet. It was a rare treat, utterly surreal and a far stronger case for the Navarra’s pugnacious individualism than the Mozart they began with.

Ken Walton