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Ethereal Bleakness and Pristine Playfulness: The Piatti Quartet

8 February 2017

Piatti Quartet

Richmond Concert Society at St Mary’s Church, Twickenham, 7th February

Review by Eugene Broad

“Colour floods to the spot, dull purple…The heart shuts, the sea slides back, the mirrors are sheeted.” So ends Sylvia Plath’s final poem Contusion, completed only days before she took her own life. Inspired by Plath’s verse after the death of six friends, Mark-Anthony Turnage (b.1960) composed a piece for quartet, similarly entitled Contusion.

The Piatti Quartet (named after the 19th century cellist Alfredo Piatti), comprises first violinist Nathaniel Anderson-Frank, second violinist Michael Trainor, cellist Jessie Ann Richardson and, for this concert, viola player Tetsuumi Negata, who was substituting for David Wigram. The quartet was awarded the Sidney Griller Prize for the best performance of Contusion, adding to their joint 2nd prize in the 2015 Wigmore Hall International String Quarter Competition, winning the St-Martin-in-the-Fields Competition in 2010 as well as being Junior Fellows in String Quartet at Trinity Laban Conservatoire. They have since added Contusion to their repertoire, a bleak, depressive diamond in an otherwise more playful list of items.

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First, however, the Piatti Quartet selected to play Ravel’s (1875 – 1937) String Quartet in F. Ravel composed the piece when only 28, submitting it for consideration at France’s most prestigious musical award, the Prix de Rome. Ravel came second in the competition, and requested help from his teacher and the dedicatee of the piece, Gabriel Fauré, who gave the following instruction: “I recommend you change every single note.” Not at all disheartened, Ravel received encouragement from Claude Debussy, who recommended he keep it “exactly as it was.” The Piatti Quartet gave the piece a lyricism and lucidity, allowing the melodic motifs (whether direct motifs or subtly modified) presented in the first movement to resurface gently in the III and IV movements. The overall effect of these movements (especially the first) was reminiscent of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, in its melodic languidness and gentle close. The second movement is well known to popular culture, such as being used in Wes Anderson’s film The Royal Tenenbaums. This scherzo is particularly playful, evidenced immediately from its pizzicato opening, with both a rhythmic and contrasting “sung” melody. The Piatti Quartet really brought out the playfulness of this second movement, simply allowing the melody to flow from the violins, to the viola, to the cello. Importantly, the musicians appeared to all be having fun with the piece, including substitute Tetsuumi Negata on viola following David Wigram having a hand injury. Negata very adeptly worked with the passion and chemistry that had already been developed, having previous experience in the Eka Quartet and having substituted in the Benyounes Quartet also.

Similarly, Britten’s (1913 – 1976) 3 Divertimenti for String Quartet, was treated playfully by the Piatti Quartet giving justice to a piece which Britten considered “interesting and quite brilliant”, but which after being premiered to silence and laughter in 1936, wasn’t publicly played again until after Britten’s death in 1982.

Turnage’s Contusion however was the highlight of the programme, a single long continuous movement which had dense and complex counterpoint. Contusion as a piece was highly challenging and often appeared to be the melodic equivalent of hacking ones way through a bramble-patch, threatening to entangle and suffocate. Sudden jarring roughness rhythmically appeared from the viola and cello, disrupting the lyricism from the violins. Rather than confuse or disrupt the piece, the jarring effect felt as if the music itself was attempting to draw its last desperate breaths before asphyxiating (bringing to mind some of the organ work from the soundtrack of Interstellar, which was likewise supposed to evoke sudden respiration). Echoed at the coda but in a higher pitch, the feeling of asphyxiation drew more frantic until it felt as if the piece repeatedly convulsed and quietly collapsed, with an ethereal cello solo drawing the piece to a close, as if a soul softly departing from its physical vessel. The early inspiration on the piece from Plath’s work, as well as possibly even her method of suicide (asphyxiation by carbon monoxide poisoning, lining the doors of the house with wet towels so her sleeping children would not also be poisoned), seemed present throughout this piece. It felt as if the Piatti Quartet truly drew a unique and pristine interpretation of the piece, giving it an otherworldly feeling that made the initially jarring and disturbing nature turn transcendental and strangely life-affirming. I hope, and feel, that the interpretation of Contusion given by the Piatti Quartet will be the definitive one.

Eugene Broad

February 2017

Editor’s Note:  Eugene Broad is currently reviewing in Paris, and a fuller version of this review will be posted soon.

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From → Music, Reviews

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