13 July 2015
If you are in London on Tuesday evening and in the mood to hear a surprising rarity, head for the Purcell Room. The Sacconi Quartet will be playing the London premiere of a youthful Sibelius piece, his Moderato and Allegro Appassionata in C sharp minor. It has never been published, so the quartet had to apply to the composer’s estate for the manuscript. It’s a wonderfully engaging piece, despite its brow-furrowing key. Fretful and anxious, it bursts with youthful impetuosity, never quite able to take itself entirely seriously – a lyrical pastoral, based around a single rising theme but with dark clouds never far away.
The Sacconis are currently in residence at the Lichfield festival, where they played this piece as an opener to an afternoon of Nordic brooding. They displayed tremendous control in the febrile intensity of the first movement of Nielsen’s Quartet in G minor, Op 13, before slipping into the calmer waters of the second movement, with particularly fine playing from second violinist Hannah Dawson. The bucolic third movement opened with such savage urgency that the audience visibly flinched, but it was in Sibelius’s Intimate Voices quartet that the Sacconis really impressed. The calm stillness of the central adagio will linger in the memory for a long time. It was a triumphant performance...
The Guardian & The Observer
13 July 2015
Is it really 22 years since The Juliet Letters? In 1993, we mistook it for crossover: there was a lot of it about back then. Elvis Costello’s song cycle with the Brodsky Quartet seemed to follow in the tradition of George Martin’s quartet arrangements for the Beatles, or Sinatra’s recordings with the Hollywood Quartet. But crucially, The Juliet Letters comprised entirely original music: the joint product of Costello’s art as a songwriter and the creative instincts of the individual Brodskys. The result?
Well, as we discovered in this late night Lichfield Festival concert with Jon Boden and the Sacconi Quartet the result was something that, two decades on, requires neither Costello nor the Brodskys in order to make a powerful impact. Inevitably, there were glitches: microphones never sit easily with chamber groups. Costello aficionados hoping to hear a slick reproduction of the studio album will have been disappointed.
For the rest of us, though, the rough edges made this music speak more directly – more passionately – than ever. Not that Boden’s light, softly-shaded tenor wasn’t ideally suited to the Sondheim-esque wit of numbers like Romeo’s Seance and This Offer is Unrepeatable.
But Boden and the Sacconis played off each other, seeming to find a shared intensity in the searching, Berg-like Dear Sweet Filthy World, making tone-colour match curdling harmonies, and transforming I Thought I’d Write To Juliet into a miniature music-drama. Boden’s expression as Robin Ashwell’s viola solo in Last Post sobbed out into the vast space of the darkened cathedral said it all: this was chamber music of a high order.
The Birmingham Post
23 October 2014
Something singular happened at this concert tonight. At the end of the third movement of the Beethoven quartet (Molto adagio – Andante) there was a silence so profound, so intense, so visceral that few in the chancel of Ripon Cathedral will forget it. Time stood still. We the audience, were changed by it. Ben Hancox, the first violinist anticipated the reception of this movement in the chancel of the cathedral. It was if the whole concert was programmed to lead up to this moment of new reality.
The Haydn quartet may be in F minor but the Sacconi Quartet still make us want to get up and dance with their extraordinary internal rhythm. The piece begins with an accompanied tune by the first violin. Later the second violin takes over whilst the first offers (as if off the cuff) a wistful, questioning obligato. One could say that the whole concert was a conversation of many moods and many subjects between the four instruments. Perhaps this is the nature of chamber music brought to a profound level by this group. The contrast between the violins was particularly fascinating throughout the concert, Hannah Dawson offering warm lyrical tone whist Ben Hancox producing what might be called an almost smokey, ethereal sound. The last movement of this piece is a fugue, perhaps looking back to the Baroque era just gone. The Sacconi’s tightly controlled intelligence made the fugue fresh and immediate.
The Janáček piece is hugely demanding of both players and listeners. The intricate rhythmical, melodic and harmonic textures are both difficult to play and challenge the listeners’ understanding. The music seems to ask one question after another with few answers. It is electrifying, exhausting and exhilarating. Parts seemed to have a physical effect on the air in the building, the tremolando in the second movement for example. To what purpose is this demanding music? An audience of over one hundred and fifty people packed the cathedral chancel to find out. During the interval we were buzzing with enthusiasm and anticipating a very special second half. Yet I think even then we did not know that for some of us there would be moments we would never forget.
Beethoven’s Opus 132 begins in sombre mood (perhaps foreshadowing the third movement). A brief few of bars of (enforced?) jollity ensue before the main theme is stated and developed. The second movement is interspersed with unison passages. The theme begins with a long note which the instrumentalists in turn stretched giving a wonderful sense of pushing and pulling.. I hesitate to describe the third movement. Words just will not do. Go and listen to it. Find it on You Tube! Buy the Sacconi’s recording which they about to make. Then go and listen to it live. You must listen to it live. It will change you. A short final movement necessarily returned the audience to terra firma.
The audience left humbled. We simply wanted to give thanks.
Ripon Cathedral Concerts, Ripon Cathedral, 8th October
8 October 2014
This was an impressively mature and focused performance by the Sacconi Quartet, characterised by clarity and consistency of purpose, technical assurance and considerable stamina. Such features were notably evident in an absorbing presentation of Beethoven’s complex late quartet, the Op.132 in A minor, in the second half of the concert, in which there was a confident spaciousness and masterful appreciation of the musical form. But, first came brooding Haydn and more whimsical Vaughan Williams.
The opening measures of Haydn’s Quartet in F Minor Op.20 No.5 possessed an emotional intensity which was sustained throughout the four movements and which powerfully conveyed what the musicologist Roger Parker has termed the new ‘aesthetic weight’ which characterises the Op.20 set. The strange, eerie harmonies, shifting textures and angular lines had a plangent quality which deepened the inherently ‘dark’ resonances of the minor tonality. While first violinist Ben Hancox maintained an elegant melodic line, the lower strings’ repeated quaver motif injected a note of restlessness. As the material unfolded, the Sacconi made much of the ever-changing combinations of voice and over-lapping registers, relishing Haydn’s constant development and creating a strong sense of the architectural breadth of the movement. The unsettling harmonies of the coda expanded startlingly across the wide compass of the four instruments, before a concluding return to the potent quiet of the opening bars.
There was a crisp cleanness about the short Menuet, despite the complexity of the supporting textures; the major mode Trio provided a brief episode of simplicity. Hancox’s elaborate variations unfolded stylishly in the third movement Adagio, if with a slight reserve and without flamboyance, and the Sacconi were able to sustain the melodic flow despite the broad tempo. The vigorous fugal invention of the Finale was a dramatic intrusion following the quiet beauty and poignancy of the Adagio: the ceaseless counterpoint (this is a fuga a due soggetti, a double fugue based on a familiar motif, ‘And with his stripes’, from Handel’s Messiah) was robust and rhetorical, each voice equal in the imitative interplay. This was an imposing display of Sturm und Drang temperament.
Vaughan Williams’ first string quartet bears the mark of the influence his teacher, Ravel, with whom the English composer studied in 1908; indeed, he began composing the quartet immediately upon his return from Paris although it was not premiered until November 1909 (and later revised in 1921). Vaughan Williams was three years Ravel’s senior, but he later declared his great debt to the French musician who had taught him to orchestrate ‘in points of colour rather than in lines’ – although it is just as much in the harmonic colours as the textures that we can hear an impressionistic sensibility.
The Sacconi Quartet were wonderfully alert both to the textural effect – emphasising the rarefied nature of the sul ponticello and sul tasto episodes – and to the score’s sophisticated chromatic twists and turns. The folk-like contours of Robin Ashwell’s opening viola melody were richly complemented by strong pizzicati from Hannah Dawson and cellist Cara Berridge, the asymmetrical rhythms gently challenging the surety of the melody, before Hancox dispensed with a fragile accompanying gesture and assumed the melodic mantle, rising with clarity and grace. Such ebb and flow, as the four voices took turns to move to the fore and retreat, was typical of the Sacconi’s innate sense of balance and ensemble throughout. The intonation was rock solid, even in the challenging double-stopped passages, and the over-lapping cross rhythms were articulated with precision. A strong sense of forward movement was maintained, without the tranquillo mood ever being disturbed, and the diminishing crotchets of the closing bars span ravishingly into silence.
The ensuing Minuet was playful and airy; the opening unison announcement was followed by the first violin’s light-spirited dance, with incisive pizzicati beneath enhancing the nimble ambience. Ashwell’s sweet-toned solo in the Trio, and the repeating-note crotchets of the accompanying strings, offered a brief moment of placidity and restraint, before the spirited return of the dance swept formality and detachment aside. The folky modality and languorous unfolding of the Romance comes as something of a surprise after the bright ebullience of the second movement, and the Sacconi played with a searching, yearning quality which was highly affecting. There was some particularly beautiful interplay and conversation between first Hancox and Dawson, and then the two middle voices; the textures were warm but never overly dense. The fizzing energy of the final movement, Rondo Capriccioso, was charmingly infectious.
Then, on to Beethoven. This was an astonishingly assured and mature reading – the Sacconi may have been playing together since 2001, but the consistency of shared vision and musical voice was still remarkable, and suggested a deep, shared penetration of the work’s musical and philosophical arguments.
The motto which opens the slow introduction – with its symmetrical pairs of semitones, one rising the other falling – was thoughtfully placed with calm and composure; and I was pleased that the players did not overly emphasise the slight swell that Beethoven indicates in the fourth measure. This allowed the introductory bars to grow organically into the first violin’s virtuosic outburst and also clearly delineated the gesture that unifies the whole, complex architecture of the quartet. The following scherzo had a Classical grace which countered the contrapuntal dynamism of the opening movement, while in the partnering minuet the Sacconi effectively counter-poised this balance as the drone-supported folky melody fragmented and the temporal regularity was disrupted by irregular harmonic changes.
But, it was the third movement, Molto adagio, which was most remarkable; here was breadth, capaciousness and air, though all the while the tone was focused, the line controlled. The Sacconi were not afraid to restrict their use of vibrato and the result was a mood of penetrating religiosity. Contrast was offered in the ornamented, capricious Andante, but the return of the slow material felt both inevitable and fresh, as the melody roved as a descant above the weaving lower lines. Perhaps it is unfair to suggest that in the closing stages of the movement the tempo was just a little too elongated, but it did feel to me that the parameters of the form were being stretched to the limit at the risk of losing forward movement. The ending was, however, wonderfully ethereal.
The Sacconi sustained this self-assurance during the feisty march and impassioned, agitated final movement, the ceaseless skipping and running of the Presto dancing to a triumphant conclusion.
London Chamber Music Society, King’s Place, London, 5th October 2014
14 April 2014
It was parky outside on Friday evening. But there was warmth aplenty inside St Peter’s, the warmth of reunion. Like the first cuckoo in spring, the Ryedale Festival launch concert brought the promise of sunnier days ahead: 42 events in July, no less.
The Sacconis are not perhaps as well known in the northeast of England as elsewhere in Europe. But they have been around since 2001, and it shows. In Bridge, Mozart and Dvorak alike, their quiet composure was captivating.
The 25-year-old Bridge’s three Novelletten (1904) were beautifully turned here, with solo viola and cello bouncing along on featherbed accompaniments, and the composer’s harmonic adventures gently pointed.
Mozart’s 16th quartet, K.428 in E flat, was truly revealing. Barely exceeding mezzo forte throughout, the Sacconis enticed us into their confidence. In an exceptionally soft slow movement, they conjured a gossamer dream. A springy minuet and trio was ideally contrasted by the final rondo, where Mozart’s clever bridges back to the theme were teasingly presented.
After such thoughtful work, the players let their hair down in Dvorak’s ‘American’ quartet, No 12 in E, their enjoyment palpable. But ensemble remained as tight-meshed as ever. Here again their communication with each other was a joy to witness and infectious to hear. Musical intimacy does not get better than this. It generates warmth, too.
23 September 2013
To begin the 72nd season the Marlborough College Concert Series presented the Sacconi String Quartet in a varied programme of music by Haydn, Benjamin Britten and Beethoven. The Sacconis are a young quartet on the rise and on this performance it’s easy to see why. Brimming with sparkle, energy and fizz this was a performance of real class and flair, with a freshness that comes with the flourish of youth and the audience clearly enjoyed themselves. The Haydn Quartet that opened proceedings was precise, neat and nimble – a perfect curtain raiser to Britten’s 2nd String Quartet which followed. 2013 is the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth so it was a fitting inclusion and following an informative introduction from viola player Robin Ashwell, we were treated to a spirited and atmospheric performance of this marvellous work. There was the necessary vigour and robust attack alongside some breath-taking colours, and ensemble was judged to perfection, making for an altogether memorable performance.
There was only one work in the second half, but what a work. Beethoven’s late quartet Opus 132 is a truly immense piece and timeless in its ability to sound utterly original on each hearing and the Sacconi’s rendition was both persuasive and polished. Late Beethoven presents significant musical and technical challenges for the players: optimum control, precision in phrasing, unification of intonation and significant stamina to name but a few, but again, the Sacconi Quartet didn’t disappoint – on the contrary, they warmed to the task in hand delivering a truly special performance. A fitting start to the 2013/2014 season.
23 May 2013
A Boy Was Born continued on Tuesday with the visit to Sheffield of another high-profile ensemble. While the space lacks intimacy, the sound tends to be warm and clear, and the Sacconi noticeably grew into it over the course of the evening.
Two pieces of Shostakovich opened the evening: working through matters of intonation, the group played a shimmering Elegy and a spirited Polka. Then, warming up, there followed Haydn’s Op 20 No 2 quartet, which although pleasingly full-bodied, quite rightly never became more than ‘late-classical’ in scale.
The main course was Britten’s Second Quartet. Here, especially in the epic Chacony, was an inexorable nervous energy. If anything, the quieter moments were grittier, more tense, than the strident loud passages.
At the close, the deliciously delayed resolution being played with presence and not a jot of unnecessary showmanship, it seemed that the genius of Britten was speaking to us directly, without intervention. Such moments maketh memories!
The festival sensation, the young Sacconi Quartet completely bowled over a packed audience. The chemistry between these four young players is tangible and magical.The Scotsman
A beautiful blend of sound ... highly engaging.The Times
An exceptional ensemble ... a unanimous sense of musical breath and a meticulous attention to detail.Musical Opinion
A quartet of genuine substance.The Daily Telegraph
Great power and sweetness ... intimate closeness.The Spectator
Enviable technical prowess.The Strad
The finest I have ever heardEdward Clark, British Sibelius Society
A triumphant performanceThe Observer