Portaferry Proms

Portaferry Presbyterian Church resonates to the elegant sounds of the Endellion String Quartet

To some extent, everyone lives in a world of their own. I'm struck by this initial thought on this rather dull and damp evening, as I sit in Portaferry Presbyterian Church, a relatively small, rectangular space graced by clean, classical proportions and discreet, Ionic references.

There's a simplicity about this place which inspires introspection. For well over a century and a half, the building has been an access point for people to explore their inner worlds through the channel of religion.

Tonight, however, it's the venue for a musical exploration into the worlds of three composers – Haydn, Janácek and Beethoven – through pieces played, as I will discover, with consummate skill by the Endellion String Quartet.

Now in its 35th year, the Endellion must be one of the longest established and best quartets in the UK. By its very nature, chamber music is an intimate medium, which encourages soul searching, and tonight's programme, especially set in these surroundings, presents a potent stimulus.

Haydn's Op.50 so-called 'Prussian' quartets were written during the composer's employment by Prince Esterhazy in 1787, but dedicated to the King of Prussia, Wilhelm ll. I imagine the second of this set, with which the Endellion begin their recital, being performed in the extravagant 18th century world of the privileged aristocracy.

This colourful music conjures the symmetry and the subtlety of the era, its grandness aggrandized and adorned by the individual genius of old papa Haydn. His sense of humour, however, if you can recognise it, pervades each movement and seems to poke fun at assumptions of aristocratic perfection.

The Endellion imbue their phrasing with poise and elegance, and the ensemble playing is perfect. The music breathes as if produced by a single entity, although this doesn't obscure the lovely sense of interplay provided by each instrumental character.

This is xemplified by the antiphonal rising scales of the first movement, or the cello interpolations of the second movement. Like the building I'm sitting in, there's a sense of balance and equilibrium in every movement, which hints at a world where, on the surface, everything has its place, and all is ordered.

'I was imagining a poor woman, tormented and run down, just like the one the Russian writer Tolstoy describes in his Kreutzer Sonata.' So Janácek explained about his first string quartet, drawing on a Tolstoy novella, which in turn drew on the famous violin and piano sonata by Beethoven, known as the 'Kreutzer'.

Tonight, the stark contrast between the accommodating lines of Haydn and the angular, pithy phrases of Janácek could not be more noticeable. They occupy different worlds. Nevertheless, the Endellion capture and project the speech inflexions of the music, the episodic nature of the narrative, the shifting pictures and fragmentary images behind the sound.

Each of the four movements is propelled by short motivic drivers, recognisably similar and giving the impression of a through-composed piece, a unified structure becoming the sum of its parts. There is a harshness and pathos to this music, constantly interrupted by outbursts of emotions teeming beneath the surface and breaking through into our consciousness.

The quartet players are absorbed in this unsettling world, and they absorb us with this undiluted, raw concentrate. They build up the blocks of sounds and colours to an almost tangible intensity as we journey through to the last movement.

Somehow this sets the scene for the final work in tonight's programme, Beethoven's Op.127, the first of the 'late' quartets. By the time he came to write these chamber works in the last four years of his life, Beethoven was totally deaf and living in a world that must have been exclusive and isolating. The Endellion, in an introductory paragraph, describe the Op.127 as being 'in its own world of fantasy and imagination'.

I contemplate how that world in which Beethoven was captive affected his concept of music in the outer reality of a listening public as the reassuring, affirmative chords of the opening movement flow from the strings of the Endellion.

Could the fact that all sound for him was now restricted within his head account for the 'indecipherable, uncorrected horrors' to which Beethoven's contemporary, Louis Spohr ,referred in connection with the late quartets?

It's perplexing for us now to understand what Spohr meant by that remark and yet, as the Endellion unfold the music with such understanding born of years of playing it, I can see how the aural outcome of Beethoven's inner musical logic – the logic of pure abstraction – even now can be puzzling.

The abrupt terminations, the sudden juxtapositions of distant harmonies, the extended dwelling on certain passages, the surprising right-angled swings of mood are all strange unless we appreciate that the composer was perhaps persuing the logic of his internal hearing, rather than its result in the external world.

Maybe it's just the effect of being in a church that has me waxing lyrical. In any case, it's time to leave, but taking with me a last thought of how truly remarkable it is to be able to experience such high quality music and music-making live in an obscure village in County Down, courtesy of the Friends of Portaferry Presbyterian Church.

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