Christ Church Cathedral
Artists: Consone Quartet – Agata Daraškaite, and Magdalena Loth-Hill, violins; Elitsa Bogdanova, viola; George Ross, cello
London’s Consone Quartet is the first period instrument quartet to be selected as ‘BBC New Generation Artists.’ Praised for their honest and expressive playing; they are fast making a name for themselves in classical and early romantic repertoire. This programme presents works by Mozart, Haydn, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, and Fanny Mendelssohn.
“…instantly leaps out of the stereo at you as something special” (The Strad, 2019)
This concert is generously supported by Sharon Kahn and Barrie MacFadden.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
String Quartet no. 13 in D minor, KV173
Allegro ma molto moderato
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809)
String Quartet in Eb major, Op. 33 no. 2 “The Joke”
Allegro moderato, cantabile
Joseph Bolougne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745–1799)
Quartet in G minor, op. 1 no. 3.
Allegro – Rondeau
Fanny Mendelssohn (1805–1847)
String Quartet in Eb major
Adagio ma non troppo
Allegro molto vivace
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) wrote his first string quartet at the age of fourteen during his first trip to Italy in 1770. Two years later, while on his third trip to Italy, he composed in rapid succession six more quartets, and in the late summer of 1773 during a visit to Vienna another half dozen. This preoccupation with the string quartet is often attributed to Mozart’s fascination with Haydn’s early efforts in the medium. (Haydn had himself turned out nearly twenty quartets within the short span of 1769-1772.)
The first movement of the String Quartet in D minor opens with a nine-bar subject of somber manner and dark colours. The second subject arrives quickly after just fifteen bars, and consists merely of an eleven-fold repetition on a single note with a little trill stuck in the middle. Unusually for Mozart, he is not indulging in tuneful melodies, but rather in motivic fragments that can be manipulated like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle or a kaleidoscope. He alternates continuously changing harmonic regions of these two ideas in a well-integrated sonata-form structure, giving far more attention to the second subject than to the first, almost to the point of obsession.
Composers usually took care to place the second movement of a multi-movement work in a contrasting key. Mozart thwarts expectation by retaining the keynote of D, though here it is D major rather than minor. Also, rather than the expected slow movement, we get something along the lines of a courtly dance in rondo form (a form usually reserved for final movements). The Menuetto returns to D minor, stern and somber like the first movement. The first five notes of the first violin are exactly the same as those that opened the first movement. The contrasting Trio section, in F major, is the only music in the entire quartet not based on the keynote of D.
The finale is perhaps the most extraordinary movement of all. It is a fugue , whose subject is a nearly complete descending chromatic scale. Mozart scholar A. Hyatt King writes that the material is “treated with such elaborate skill that it seems as if [Mozart] wanted to end this set of quartets by showing the musicians of Vienna how completely he had mastered the art of counterpoint.”
Throughout most of the 1770s, Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) devoted most of his creative energy to writing, conducting and directing opera at the palace of his employer, Prince Nicholas Esterhazy. In 1781, nine years after publishing his six string quartets Op. 20, the composer returned to this medium to produce another half dozen works, each dedicated to the Grand Duke Paul of Russia. Haydn announced that they were written “in an entirely new and special manner,” which might simply have been a general appeal to audiences in the interest of novelty. His “new” manner included features like the use of scherzos instead of courtly minuets for (in most cases) the third movement.
The tightly-constructed opening movement is built almost entirely from the motivic material found in the first few measures. Even the second subject is derived therefrom. All four members of the quartet discuss the subject at hand, fracturing it, examining it from different angles and piecing it all together again.
The Scherzo has a rustic, folk-dance flavor to it, with the first beat of each measure inviting a hearty “stomp.” The slow Largo movement is the emotional heart of the quartet, music of deeply felt beauty and sensitivity. A theme of great calm and repose is presented by the viola and cello, initially as a duet. Following a contrasting interlude (initiated by sharp chords) the theme is presented again, this time by three instruments (violins and viola). Once again comes the contrasting interlude, and finally the theme again, now with all four voices in play.
The quartet’s nickname derives from its final moments. The Finale skips along merrily to a jaunty main tune that alternates with some secondary material. Then it’s time for some fun. The main theme starts again but is momentarily interrupted by a slow, seemingly unrelated episode. Then it’s back to the brisk main theme. But just a bit of it this time. Sudden pause. Another bit. Another pause. Another bit. Pause? End? Don’t start clapping too soon or the joke will be on you!
Composer Joseph Boulogne (1745–1799) was born on the island of Basse-Terre, in the western half of the archipelago of Guadeloupe, then a French colony in the Caribbean. Boulogne was the illegitimate son of a wealthy French plantation owner and an enslaved African-Guadeloupean woman. When Boulogne was around ten, he was brought alongside the rest of his father’s legitimate family back to France and enrolled in elite schools to receive his education alongside private lessons in fencing and music. He soon acquired a reputation not only as one of the finest fencers in Europe and an outstanding horseman, but also a boxer, skater, dancer, and swimmer.
His extraordinary fencing talent led Louis XV to name him Chevalier de Saint-Georges, after his father’s noble title, though France’s Code Noir prohibited the composer from officially inheriting the title because of his African ancestry. he Chevalier spent most of his life bouncing around Europe, principally between London and Paris. His musical circle included Salieri, Gluck, and Mozart, among others.
Over and above all this, Saint-Georges was a violinist of the first rank. According to legend, he studied with a slave by the name of Plato (or Platon) while still on Guadeloupe. Later he may also have studied in France with the famous Jean-Marie Leclair. He played in François-Joseph Gossec’s orchestra, for Les Concerts des Amateurs in Paris, and most likely studied composition with Gossec as well. The Chevalier rose to become one of the leading musical figures in Paris during the third quarter of the eighteenth century. It was he, for example, who organized the famous Concert de la Loge Olympique and who acted as contact person in commissioning Haydn to write his six great “Paris” symphonies – he may even have conducted some of them.
If this man had composed no music at all, he would still have been a biographer’s dream. But he found time to write eighteen string quartets, fifteen violin concertos, two symphonies, several symphonies concertantes, a half dozen stage works (one of which was performed by the Los Angeles Opera in 2020), and over a hundred songs. Stylistically, Saint-Georges represents French taste of the mid-eighteenth century ̶ light, graceful, elegant, neither profound nor adventurous, music intended more to be heard than listened to. It is calculated to please through unruffled charm and poise.
Typical of his work is the string quartet on this program, published in Paris in 1773. The string quartet was already gaining importance in German-speaking lands (Haydn had written more than thirty by this time), but in France the medium was still in its infancy. The example we hear this evening is barely seven minutes in length, and consists of just two connected sections: the first in rudimentary sonata-allegro form, the second a dance. It’s the first violin’s show all the way, with the other three voices serving as mere harmonic accompaniment.
When the name “Mendelssohn” appears on concert programs, it is almost always Felix who is played. But Felix had an older sibling who was equally talented, precocious and ambitious. In fact, the two had a particularly close relationship in matters musical, social and intellectual all their lives. Fanny (1805–1847) bristled at the social stricture that viewed women’s music-making in professional settings as improper, and composed anyway. (She was also an outstanding pianist.) Her catalogue runs to over four hundred works, but virtually none of them were published due to Felix’s opposition – the sibling’s relationship was so symbiotic that she couldn’t bring herself to go against him. Fanny continued to showcase her talents in the family salon only.
Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel (she married Wilhelm Hensel at the age of 23; “Hensel” is the name by which she is sometimes programmed) wrote just one string quartet, in 1834. It is one of the first string quartets ever written by a woman, but was not published until 1988. It is a remarkable work in a number of ways. Even the most casual listener will note that despite its designation “in E-flat major,” most of the quartet is written in other keys, and mostly in the minor mode. Only the final movement opens in the major tonality, but even here later passages revert to the minor.
The first movement is not an expected fast movement in sonata form, but is rather a free fantasia that unfolds from two melodic strands. The titular key of E-flat major is avoided until near the end.
The central contrasting episode of the Allegretto movement (a scherzo) moves faster, not slower, than the outer sections, the opposite of what one usually finds in such a movement. The third movement, by far the longest of the four, begins with a dissonant chord that signals music of emotional turbulence. A four-note repeated motif, heard at the outset, runs almost continuously through the movement, and the finale pulses with joy, exuberance and driving energy in writing that at times borders on the virtuosic.
- notes by Robert Markow
The first period instrument quartet to be selected as BBC New Generation Artists, the Consone Quartet are fast making a name for themselves with their honest and expressive interpretations of classical and early romantic repertoire. Their debut CD, released in 2018 on the French Ambronay Label, explores music by Haydn and Mendelssohn. It was met with great critical acclaim as a recording “that instantly leaps out of the stereo at you as something special” (The Strad, 2019).
Formed at the Royal College of Music in London, the Consone Quartet launched their professional career in 2015, shortly after which they were awarded two prizes at the 2015 York Early Music International Young Artists Competition, including the EUBO Development Trust Prize and a place on the EEEmerging Scheme in France. They went on to win the 2016 Royal Over-Seas League Ensemble Prize, and in 2022 were awarded a prestigious Borletti-Buitoni Trust (BBT) fellowship.
The quartet has been enthusiastically received at London’s Wigmore Hall, King’s Place, St Martin-in-the-Fields and at the Edinburgh, Cheltenham, and Buxton Festivals amongst others. The English Haydn, Brighton and York Early Music Festivals have been loyal supporters over the past few years and regularly host the group.
Further afield, the quartet has performed at the Paris Philharmonie String Quartet Biennial and the Lyon Auditorium in France; at the Concertgebouw Brugge and AMUZ in Belgium; the REMA Showcase; the Concerts d’été à St Germain in Switzerland and on tour in Bolivia and Peru. The group was selected for the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence Académie in June 2020.
Consone enjoy regular collaborations with fellow musicians, most recently Colin Lawson, Anneke Scott, Gwilym Bowen, Paolo Zanzu, Mary Bevan, Alexander Rolton and members of the Hanover Band. The quartet has worked with students at Chetham’s School of Music, the Royal College of Music and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Consone are currently Hans Keller Chamber Fellows at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama for 2020-2022.
During the pandemic, the quartet created their own online series, entitled ‘Barnstorming!’ – performing chamber music in barns around the UK. The project was kindly supported by the Continuo Foundation, whose latest round of grants will enable live performances of a new string sextet commission by composer Gavin Bryars this summer.
Highlights of the 2022-2023 season include Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh; Wigmore Hall, London; Stoller Hall, Manchester; De Bijloke, Belgium; Heidelberg Festival, Germany and a tour of North America. The quartet recently signed with the Scottish Label, Linn Records, and will be releasing an album of music by Felix Mendelssohn in spring 2023.