& Artea String Quartets Milhaud, Williams & Mendelssohn
Purcell Room 13 May 2003
Graham Williams Elegy for String Octet (1st perf)
'After the performance of my 4th Symphony one of my friends gave me a delightfully bound little green notebook with 8 blank staves on each page. I decided to playa little game. I would write two completely different quartets which when superimposed and played together would become an octet'
Since attending the first UK performance of Milhaud's ingenious jeu d'esprit c. 1970, I have long awaited an opportunity to hear his octet assembled again.
I have vivid memories of a complete performance of this unique project which I attended at the Royal College of Music in London, but, given her husband's productivity and in view of her advanced age, it is understandable that Madeleine Milhaud does not remember that occasion. She was looking after the frail and physically handicapped composer, who had to be helped to a chair to conduct two student quartets in the Octet. Having settled, he shed the years and was galvanised.
How well it was played then I cannot say after the passage of three decades, but I do not remember another Purcell Room audience being roused to such prolonged ovations after every work as by the Pavao & Artea Quartets in both octets last night. Each of the young quartets distinguished itself separately in one of the Milhaud quartets, the Artea taking a slightly lighter approach to theirs. The two Pavao violinists exchange places and led with equal distinction.
The novelty by Graham Williams was a welcome addition to a restricted repertoire, reminding me of Sibelius 4 as it grew from the depths of the cellos, giving full value to the lower instruments; a good companion piece for the Mendelssohn.
The Octet playing throughout was exceptional, men and women alternately spread across the platform - remarkable ensemble and balance achieved, so I was told, without much discussion; just eight pairs of acute ears attuned to the collective sound they were making together.
Milhaud has such density in his multiplication of polytonal melodies in each of the quartets, let alone when they are played together, that they opted for a general lightening of texture without any complicated programme of bringing parts forward or making others recede. The Milhaud octet is an exilarating riot of colliding melodies, vastly enjoyable. These quartets should plan to stay together, not least because their account of the Mendelssohn restored my faith in a work which at Cheltenham (see below) I had come to think was remarkable only for the youth of its composer, and sorely in need of a conductor to clarify the music. Pulse and texture was established effortlessly by the Pavaos and Arteas, and their scherzo was of elfin delicacy. Clare Duckworth led, making light of the formidable first violin part and everyone listened and adjusted to the others. A memorable concert.
All the Milhaud quartets, plus the Octet in a recommendable
recording by the Quatuors Parisii & Manfred (Naive
V 4891) are now available from Select in UK, but this really
is an experience to be enjoyed live.
Peter Grahame Woolf
Concert Programme Note:
This octet is dedicated to Paul Collaer and was given its first performance in Oakland, USA by the Paganini and Budapest quartets on October lOth 1949. It was warmly received by the American critics. - - We believe that this is the first time that the quartets and octet have been played together in one concert in London. Madeleine Milhaud, Milhaud's widow, has no recollection of any such concert taking place. [See note above]
Review of Mendelssohn's Octet at Cheltenham (from Seen&Heard July 2002)
- - the Belcea & Jerusalem Quartets - -took turns with Webern's 1905 Slow Movement (Belcea) and Kurtag's 15 little movements Officium Breve. The leader of the Israelis, Alexander Pavlovsky, took charge of both the Mendelssohn Octet and Shostakovich's two extant pieces from a five-movement suite for string octet which the Petrograd Conservatoire student composer never completed. Pavlovsky was assertive and dominant, but with a metallic brilliance of tone and variable intonation; I would wish that in fairness Corina Belcea might have taken charge of the Mendelssohn. The audience however was roused to ecstatic appreciation by the vigour they all brought to these youthful works, though for me the Mendelssohn received an under-rehearsed, ill considered, rough and unready account of a piece which is accepted as a canonical miracle of youth (16 when composed), an appellation which I would concede only for its scherzo. As suggested in S&H, reviewing a comparably unsatisfactory performance of Schubert's Octet in Berlin, eight musicians are too many to sort out for themselves refinements of style and balance, without close familiarity and generous preparation time. Perhaps those expansive octets are two examples of works which do not 'take care of themselves' and can often disappoint in live performances, but are tricky pieces which warrant seeking out the best recorded performances? - -
from Review of Milhaud's Quartets for
The Quatuor Parisii was founded in 1981 by four Paris Conservatoire students, who played No 4 in 1984 and promised Milhaud's widow Madeleine then that they would record all eighteen. They went on to win many prestigious competitions, remained together and completed this project last year. The performances are as good as you could reasonably expect (a few moments show a little strain) and are well recorded. It is a labour of love by all concerned for this amiable composer (his My happy life - Darius Milhaud, Ma vie heureuse, Paris 1973 - is a joy to read) and the detailed descriptive notes on each quartet (Jean-Louis Leleu and Jeremy Drake) take you through their rigorous construction and have many quotes from his adored wife and widow, Madeleine Milhaud. I wondered whether initial doubts about the enterprise, as well as artistic considerations, prompted the decision to arrange the CDs non-chronologically, but this is no great problem; indeed I would recommend playing them one at a time and they suit well my approach to daunting boxes of the complete this and that, which is to play one each morning at breakfast!
It is odd that the Milhaud quartets have almost disappeared from the UK chamber music repertoire - - there are good illustrations in the booklets, with photos of Milhaud at different ages, and full details (plus sound bites of each movement if you have the right equipment).
© Peter Grahame Woolf