Bruch, Coleridge-Taylor, Spohr and D’Indy String Quartets

Bruch, Coleridge-Taylor, Spohr and D’Indy String Quartets – This week we (Manor House String Quartet) seized another opportunity to get together for a sociable day of chamber music and explore some more pieces for string quartet. Whereas last week I’d played the first violin parts and Louise had played second violin, we kept it interesting by swapping over today.

Playing Bruch Quartet in E (Op. 10)

Playing second violin in the quartet is a completely different experience as often the inner parts are written in a more challenging register to play in, the parts are sometimes less suited to strong projection and the second violinist needs razor sharp ensemble skills – keeping together with players on either side and maintaining balance for the quartet. I particularly enjoy swapping around between first and second violin as it’s possible to really understand the balance of the music so much better and bring out those inner parts which are so integral.

We chose to start with one of the two interesting string quartets in our collection by Max Bruch. Although Bruch is best known for his First Violin Concerto, the Scottish Fantasy and Kol Nidrei for cello, both of his string quartets are rarely performed. So, it was with anticipation that we played through the quartet in E (Op. 10).

It’s a substantial work in four movements, extremely well written for the instruments, each player has a challenging part and to bring it from the level of simply reading it through to being ready for a polished performance would take time and careful work. Although it was written when Bruch was quite young, already it has an almost orchestral feel and his characteristic style is clearly emerging. The piece finishes with a bravura finale which has dramatic twists and turns, a wonderful stringendo to finish and it’s very full bodied overall. An absolute must for a future concert, I think it might work well in a programme twinned with something by Brahms, Schumann or Mendelssohn.

We all thought the Bruch was fantastic and are keen to play through his other quartet in C minor (Op. 9) at the earliest opportunity.

Next we picked out a contrasting work by Samuel Coleridge Taylor. Coleridge Taylor is an interesting musical figure best known nowadays¬†for his choral work ‘Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast’. The piece we played was his Fantasiestucke, (Op. 5), so a very early work, probably composed when he was quite young. We were slightly disappointed in the fact that there doesn’t seem to be much cohesion within the individual movements. There was a feeling that the music meanders and wanders a little bit, without a great deal of direction. The influence of Brahms is evident in this piece and although there are some melodically charming moments, it wasn’t as enjoyable to play as the Bruch had been. Perhaps as this was such an early work, Coleridge- Taylors talents were still in a formative stage and later compositions might be much more rewarding.

After a much needed break for a couple of shared pizzas, I swapped back over to first violin and we gave one of Spohr’s 36 quartets a try. We opted for Opus 29 in C major (no. 2), which we all agreed is very intelligently written with nicely integrated parts and some quirky harmonies in the first movement. In the slow adagio, there is a slightly uneasy feel¬†which at times seemed to shift between 3/4 and 6/8 rhythms. The condensed minuet and trio¬†has a march-like feel with a smooth flowing trio. The¬†Finale is jolly and upbeat, but thematically not quite as strong as the first three movements and is more of a showcase for the first violin. This was generally very enjoyable to play but there are certainly quartets by Spohr which are stronger.

The last work that we explored was Vincent D’Indy’s string quartet in D (Op. 35). In a late French Romantic style, this quartet has an emphasis on sensuality of sound with shifting harmonies. It’s not the easiest piece of music to come to terms with on first listening and probably one would need to be immersed in it for quite a long period of time to get the best out of it. We probably need¬†to play it through a few times to really understand it, but it does contain some beautiful moments and we all agreed there is ‘something there’ that we need to explore in more depth to really do it justice.

Although the evening was getting late, inspired by the D’Indy, Tony suggested that we play through just the first movement of Ravels string quartet to finish and to be honest, it felt like a ray of sunlight after some of the D’Indy. The Ravel was obviously in a class of its own and clearly deserves it’s place as key repertoire for string quartets. Along with the Bruch, this was¬†one of the highlights of the day.

I am already looking forward to our next get together in May – perhaps we can look at the other Bruch quartet, or just rummage through a random pile of  music and decide what we like the look of on the day!