NAVARRA QUARTET Bridgewater Hall (January 14)
IT was one of the highlights of the Manchester Mid-day Concerts’ centenary season, as the Navarra String Quartet gave the world premiere of composer Edward Gregson’s string quartet at the Bridgewater Hall.
Professor Gregson, former principal of the Royal Northern College of Music and still very much part of the Manchester music scene, has written extensively for brass ensembles and for orchestra, but this was his first piece for the intimate and infinitely subtle combination of four string instruments.
It is an extraordinary work, both gritty and serene. Its three movements are packed with ideas – fugues, variations, cadenzas, a chorale and a march – and he never gives you a dull moment. But all this is within the traditional formal structures of sonata, freely developing fantasia and rondo, and bound together by evolving motives and tonal anchorages that provide a sense of journey to a promised land.
The elements that most entranced me, however, were the sheer singing beauty of the first movement’s ethereal second theme (and of another lovely violin melody in the finale), the nostalgic atmosphere of the central fantasia, with its tenderness and mellow, modal harmonies, and the vivid reminiscences in texture and rhythm, as much as in pitch shape, as the third movement draws several threads together and soars to a sunlit resolution.
There’s much more to it than that, of course, and the Navarra Quartet’s committed and skilful playing of what is technically quite a tricky piece was another plus point. I hope the Gregson quartet is soon recorded and long to hear it again.
The Navarra twinned it with Britten’s third string quartet (no small tribute in itself). I wonder if others remember the second-only performance ever of that work, by the Amadeus Quartet, at Wythenshawe Forum shortly after the world premiere in 1976 (a coup for the director of Forum Music and former Manchester Evening News writer, John Robert-Blunn)? It seemed then, as the composer’s death had just intervened, to come like a voice from beyond the grave, particularly in the final ‘La Serenissima’ movement.
The playing had the same combination of determination and lyricism we’d heard in the Gregson work, and if that last movement seemed rather more agonized than in the silky euphony of the Amadeus, perhaps I’m looking back with too much fondness. But the eloquence and pathos of the music were equally moving, and the ending perhaps even better done.