4 September 2016
String quartets stand out for different reasons, from quality of sound (the Takács or, in the past, the Alban Berg or Amadeus) to adventurous repertoire (Kronos or Arditti or JACK) to versatility, among whom the Sacconi Quartet, currently celebrating their 15th anniversary this year, are front-runners. They have a festival, work with a wide range of musicians and actors and have their own label. They are also very good. The works here, typically, are carefully matched: Mendelssohn wrote his mighty A minor quartet Op 13 in response to Beethoven’s in A minor, Op 132. The playing is fresh and pliable, each work illuminating the other. Both have been widely recorded, but not together. Assuming you’re not a completist, that’s reason enough to snap up this disc.
Fiona Maddocks, The Observer, September 2016
14 July 2016
Jonathan Dove’s new work, which received its first London performance in this 15th anniversary concert by the Sacconi Quartet, is an unusual and timely one. Scored for tenor and string quartet, it sets English translations by Anne-Marie McManus of text from the Syrian poet Ali Safar’s A Black Cloud in a Leaden White Sky, or Death by Stabs of Sorrow.
Safar and McManus have distilled elements of the tragic Syrian experience into words that are simple, direct and without any hint of rhetoric or sensation. Dove has succeeded in setting them to music that allows their plainness and understatement to register to maximum effect while maintaining a striking character of its own.
The string writing moves back and forth between painful intensity and frozen introspection, with many subtle shades in between. The tenor line – here presented by Mark Padmore with immaculate artistry, and a technique so finely honed that one scarcely noticed it – amplifies the eloquent candour of the originals.
The overall impact of the work and its performance was profound, an unforgettable example of the power of art to convey something terrible through an expression that is paradoxically in itself beautiful.
Dove’s piece took up the entire second half. The Sacconis led up to it with an account of Mozart’s Hoffmeister Quartet in which their fine balance and near flawless ensemble provided the bedrock for a graceful yet rhythmically vital interpretation; and a performance of Mendelssohn’s great F minor Quartet whose fury and ferocity set the scene for what was to come.
George Hall, The Guardian, July 2016
23 July 2015
This performance by the Sacconi Quartet of Sibelius's 'Voces intimae' was the finest I have ever heard. First up was his Moderato and Allegro appassionato (1888-89), and Nielsen, his First String Quartet (1887-88). Therefore we heard two contemporary Nordic composers, both born in 1865, writing music for string quartet in the same period of their careers. The juxtaposition was highly revealing.
The Sibelius is an ambitious, full length sonata-form movement. The Moderato is barely a few bars long before an impassioned theme begins on the first violin. Mendelssohn is immediately bought to mind, but Sibelius is flexing his musical muscles with great success. Sibelius had been nurtured on Classical (Haydn and Beethoven) and Romantic (the usual suspects) models, all of whose music he played as a violinist in a quartet. He had yet to seek, let alone, define a musical style that identified with any Finnish characteristics.
Nielsen's First String Quartet provided a complete contrast to the Sibelius and is imbued with a strong Scandinavian flavour; the delightful Trio in the third movement demonstrates fiddle folk-music to perfection. The gorgeous slow movement is a clear harbinger of the First Symphony completed in 1892. The Sacconi players were most impressive. The Sibelius surged forward and the Nielsen was well integrated, the sense of an emerging national composer fully established.
Both the early Sibelius and the Nielsen works are impressive examples of interest and compositional ability. Each composer was subsequently to write four String Quartets, the last of these the greatest by far, Sibelius's 'Voces intimae', written (largely in London) in 1909. Sibelius was struggling to come to terms with his mortality following a series of painful attempts to remove a cancerous growth from his throat. This String Quartet heralds entry into an extreme period of introspection for the composer already afflicted with a depressive, obsessive personality.
The Sacconi Quartet, confronted with music with wild mood-swings, was supremely successful in combining the contrasts of human feeling, and totally authentic. Sibelius was suffering and so were we, and this was a truly magisterial, full-bloodied and deeply thoughtful view a masterpiece. The first movement was portrayed initially as a beautiful prelude, containing an opening sadness but ending with the bone-crunching final chords that was truly unnerving.
The brief Vivace second movement was as light as a feather and as swift as a pedigree racehorse, providing welcome relief. Then the musicians confronted mortality in the expansive Adagio di molto, often likened to late Beethoven, and this rendering certainly placed the reflective inspiration of Sibelius on a par with the German master. The three hushed E-minor chords in bars 21 and 22, over which Sibelius wrote 'Voces intimae', were played with spellbinding delicacy.
The fourth movement, a sort of country dance, here became a kind of obsessive ritual, the players combining and departing from each other in wild fury. The Finale generated, by careful adherence to the markings for gradual acceleration, a release from the spine-tingling sensations of the earlier movements. Instead of the usual rush to the close, heard in many accounts, the Sacconi delighted in interaction. The flourish at the very end relieved the often-dark-spiritual journey heard earlier: near-perfection was achieved.
President of the British Sibelius Society
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
Both Padmore and the Sacconi Quartet, who have a major expressive role as accompanists, are at their finest in ‘Soon, we will be free’, the serene, lyrical heart of 'In Damascus'Presto Recordings of the Year: Finalist 2017
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