The Albion Quartet’s evening appearance at the Presteigne Festival was notable for scrupulous preparation and subtlety of execution.
Dvořák’s ‘American’ Quartet gripped from its whispered opening and thereafter unfolded with loving care, every phrase and paragraph keenly shaped, recent Albion member Ann Beilby’s viola warm and yielding, Tasmin Waley-Cohen captivating with sweetness of tone, never dominating yet relishing nuances with poetic sensitivity and the whole vividly communicated. The Lento was characterful, its intensity fashioned as much from dynamics that almost disappeared below the radar as the arresting use of portamento. By turns resolute and graceful the Scherzo brought fresh vigour, while the Finale was an unbuttoned affair, spilling over with rustic humour.
American nostalgia shifted to something more ambiguous in the shape of Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s impressive clarinet quintet, Tales of the Invisible (the title after Gazmend Kapllani). The work’s stimulus came from Nicholas Murray’s meditative travel book, Crossings, exploring personal boundaries between sanity and madness, night and day, as well as geographical borders. The three movements evolve from unearthly string murmurings and a benign clarinet through to an uneasy accommodation between the two protagonists, variously troubled and calm, a nomadic harmonic language allied to a battleship-grey background, resolution kept at bay. Played with assurance and penetrating insight, Frances-Hoad’s enigmatic piece bewitches and bewilders.
William Walton’s (second) String Quartet combines a characteristic blend of irascible humour, pugnacity and wistfulness, all admirably expressed here in playing of trenchant precision and aching tenderness. Mood-changes were finely integrated within the first movement, the Presto was athletically taut and the Lento offered the last word in refinement, four musicians working as one, and then ending with ebullience.