EIF: Castalian Quartet

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

It’s just over a month since the excellent Castalian String Quartet struck a particularly refreshing note at Fife’s East Neuk Festival. On that occasion, the repertoire was mainstream Mozart and Dvorak, the music stirringly revitalised by astute characterisation and an entertaining spirit of playfulness. At the heart of Friday’s Edinburgh International Festival appearance, the key challenge was to introduce an entirely new piece, the world premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Awake.

As it happened, the stakes were raised twofold. With regular second violinist Daniel Roberts ruled out through illness, his place was taken last-minute by the young London-based Japanese violinist Yume Fijise. To fill Roberts’ boots in such a rushed way, and on such a prominent platform, would have been no easy ask, yet Fujise responded not only with laudable efficiency, but a sense of musical compatibility that grew more easeful and confident as the programme progressed. She’s no stranger to quartet playing, being leader of the award-winning Kleio Quartet.

Turnage’s new string quartet – an uncharacteristically understated creation by a 63-year-old composer more associated in his younger days with musical hooliganism – was in safe hands. Inspired by the black Polish-African violinist, George Bridgetower, who famously impressed Beethoven, and to whom the latter’s Kreuzer Sonata was originally dedicated, a solo violin has first say, establishing an air of elegance and calm that is seldom seriously challenged throughout the two movements, their soft political message implicit in the titles, Bridgetower 23 and Shut Out.

This performance emphasised the reflectiveness and genuine attractiveness of the music, even where a hint of a rock ostinato emerged in the cello, abating rather than dominating as the opening movement subsided to near nothing. That plaintiveness persisted in the second movement, this time a jabbing repeated motif offering the only real threat to its languid countenance. What was so surprising about this piece was also a mark of its incredibly beauty.

The Beethoven connection prevailed either side of the Turnage, if effectively one step removed in Janacek’s String Quartet No 1 – subtitled the “Kreuzer Sonata”, though directly in reference to Tolstoy’s novel – which opened the recital. It’s a nervous piece at the best of times, frenetically buzzing ponticelli like some restless obsession, the focus of which took time to settle here, but when it did, embraced its excitable allure.

To end with Beethoven’s String Quartet in B flat, Op 130, and its original Grosse Fuge finale (later numbered separately as Op 133), was to send us away mentally exhausted. The opening five movements provided neat and precise stimulation, from the gentle whimsy of the scherzo and lapping waves of the Alla danza tedesca, to the lyrical sweetness of the Cavatina. Then the full force of the Grosse Fuge, like a wild uncontrollable force of nature, courting danger at times, venturing close to collision, but ultimately providing the explosive catharsis Beethoven unequivocally intended.

Ken Walton