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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Tuesday April 24 2007

Last night I was invited to a string quartet concert at Conway Hall.  It was the Emperor String Quartet, whom I had just about heard of.  Just about heard of, in the fiercely competitive world of contemporary string quarteting – an art at its peak right now, in my opinion - almost certainly meant pretty damn good, and so it proved.

They played a Haydn quartet, op 77 no 2, which was highly competent to my ear but no more.  Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for civilised urbanity.  Then they played Martinu quartet number 3.  In the second half it was Beethoven op. 131.

The Beethoven is an amazing piece and they made it sound more amazing than it can.  Sometimes it can be perfected down, so to speak.  Nevertheless, while listening to this performance, I kept thinking of even better performances I have also heard, where this or that phrase was played even more winningly, this or that chord even more perfectly in time and in tune, without any of that amazingness being lost.  Often it is said of recorded performances that “if you heard this in a concert hall you would not complain, but . . .”.  Well, I did hear just such a performance, a very good one, in a concert hall, yet here I am complaining.  Oh well.

For me the highlight was the Martinu.  After hearing it, I bought a couple of Emperor Quartet CDs that they were selling in the foyer for a tenner each, one of Martinu quartets, including 3, the one they played last night, and another CD of Walton quartets.  I have just played the Martinu, and it is amazing how different the recording sounds to the performance last night.  The opening on the CD sounds like insects.  The same opening last night sounded like your local serial killer rapping menacingly on your attic door.  Of the CD, Julian Haylock says here:

The cool objectivism of the Third Quartet is something of a creative one-off for Martinu, yet the Emperor players succeed in fully bringing the inscrutable score to life, mining its Ravelian expressive world to captivating effect.

Cool objectivism?  Last night it sounded, in the words of the friend who had organised this for me and who was also very impressed, “psychotic”.  Ravel?  Last night it sounded more like Bartok at his most drunken and orgiastic.

One more thing.  It shouldn’t matter, but it did.  The first violin.  He had a permanent half smile on his face that was distracting because rather sinister, like a movie villain.  I kept wondering who he reminded me of, and I still haven’t pinned it down.  My friend said that violinists all go mad (unlike cellists who all remain sane).  Something to do with the vibrations right next to their ears, she said.  Got it.  He looks like an actor, a particular actor I mean.  But, although I can picture this actor, I can’t recall his name.  More distraction.  Any century now, the all conquering Google or whoever will just be able to put a gizmo right next to your head and extract the picture you have inside it, and tell you the name.  Tip of my tongue dot com.

Tonight and tomorrow, on the radio, the Emerson Quartet are playing late Beethoven, including the op 131 quartet that the Emperor played.  Recent Wigmore Hall recitals, the second of which is reviewed here.  Notice how this critic also has his very exact opinions about exactly how this music should be done, having heard it even more times than I have.  I think I will like these Emerson performances a lot, and now that I have it organised to record from the radio, I will.