Gildas Quartet at the Stratford Festival

BRITTEN MEETS BRAHMS, BOTH IN VALEDICTORY MODE

GILDAS QUARTET
Stratford Play House ****
The irony is that Benjamin Britten loathed the music of Johannes Brahms, playing through the German composer's music to remind himself how bad it was. (and it's equally ironic that they appear next to each other on library shelves). Yet in this well-programmed Stratford Festival programme they rubbed along sympathetically side-by-side, with the last major work each of them produced before dying at a very similar age.
Britten's Third String Quartet carries such an armoury of expression within its structural resources, not least a concluding Passacaglia which sets the seal on all his instrumental achievements, and completed in his beloved Venice.
The youthful Gildas Quartet marshalled huge reserves of energy and colour in delivering this demanding piece, nuanced, alert and understanding, leaving us (and I guess themselves) emotionally drained as we reached the shattered conclusion.
Haydn's Op.20 no.6 Quartet had served as a warm-up, with an intertwining expressiveness of lines, a purity of tone, and a clarity and delicacy in balance between the players -- but perhaps a distracting excess of body-language.
Finally came Brahms and his gently monumental, autumnal Clarinet Quintet. Joining the Gildas, Jack McNeill brought a wonderful diversity of timbre, veiled and wispy in the slow movement's delicate arabesques, momentarily fruity in the first movement's chalumeau ruminations, and never obtruding his instrument at the expense of a total ensemble which was empathetic, involving, and totally at the service of this wonderful music -- whatever Britten may have thought.
Christopher Morley

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