Van Bree and Spain Dunk String Quartets – One of the greatest pleasures of being a musician (particularly in the Manor House String Quartet) is getting together with colleagues just to play through chamber music for our own enjoyment.¬† Rather than working hard in rehearsals preparing a piece for a concert or recording, we can just¬†sight-read through¬†new repertoire that we’ve never played before, try out lesser known pieces and sometimes find a real hidden gem which has fallen out of fashion, but is nonetheless beautiful. Because we don’t have to worry about playing the standard classical repertoire which might be programmed to attract an audience, or performing popular classical pieces as a wedding string quartet, we can start to really explore unusual stuff. Here is a video of us performing Puccini’s ‘I Crisantemi’:
What with juggling four busy diaries, and one thing and another – despite the best laid plans, these ‘chamber music social days’ planned weeks ahead can often get cancelled or postponed¬†if one of us is offered a ‘last minute’ paid engagement or recording session which is too lucrative to turn down.
Last Friday though, it all came together and a group of of us had a wonderful afternoon playing through some pieces which we hadn’t really explored before. As we had two cellists present for the first part of the afternoon, we took the opportunity to play¬†Schubert’s String Quintet in C (D956). This magnificent work is known to all lovers of chamber music and rightly regarded as one of Schuberts finest offerings – the slow movement being a frequently requested choice on Desert Island Discs. Although one of us had performed it in a concert relatively recently, I had¬†last¬†played it through about 15 years ago, so it was a real treat to re-discover it. We took the¬†tempo a little bit under speed in order to appreciate the quintet’s¬†phenomenal depth and memorable melodies, passed around between the various instruments.
After this we plucked from the folder at random a work by a Dutch composer called Johannes Bernardus van Bree – his String Quartet no. 3 in D minor- which¬†is written in four movements. The work contains a lot of strong and inventive material, and despite being a slightly uneven piece, has many rewarding moments. The second movement is a jaunty 6/8 Vivace and the third movement is a set of variations, skillfully written on a Russian Air. Unfortunately,¬†we found the¬†tune itself rather insipid and we were doubtful whether it was strong enough to be the basis for a set of variations – nevertheless, he surprised us by resourcefully creating some¬†fine writing, with¬†the dramatic Finale ended the piece off with real style.
After dinner we went for a contrasting piece – a Phantasy Quartet in D minor by¬†the English composer -Susan Spain Dunk, this proved to be the find of the day, evenly balanced between the four instruments. It was constructed as a continuous work in three movements. Spain Dunk shows herself to be extremely adept at evocative harmonies with a gentle underlying feel and moments of real drama. This is a wonderful piece of English string quartet writing and it’s very sad that it’s now so infrequently performed. We definitely plan to include this in a concert at the first opportunity – although it’ll have to be programmed carefully alongside well known works or audience members won’t turn up for a composer they haven’t heard of.¬† It’s astonishing to realise that less than 50 years after her death, Susan Spain Dunk is forgotten to the point where much of her music is hard to come by in sheet music form, yet in her lifetime she was a prominent figure in the English music scene. This Phantasy Quartet would certainly not be out of place among the quartets of Delius and Vaughan Williams.