Built by the prolific George Gilbert Scott (1811–78), St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Glasgow was opened in 1871. Now featuring Gwyneth Leech’s striking 1990 murals, including a triptych of the Easter Passion set in nearby Kelvingrove Park, it is a frequent venue for events such as this RSNO chamber concert. From a dais placed in the crossing of this intimate cathedral setting, a string quartet (later to be augmented to clarinet quintet) enjoyed an acoustic which, save for one brief, busy moment, offered a winning mix of clarity and warmth. All played standing, with the exception of cellist Rachel Lee, whose chair sat atop a wooden resonator box.

St Mary's Cathedral, Glasgow
St Mary's Cathedral, Glasgow

Violist Michael Lloyd welcomed the audience before passing the baton to first violinist Tamás Fejes, who provided some background to the 1917 String Quartet no. 2 of his countryman Béla Bartók. Fejes encouraged us to listen out for: Bartók’s highly individual incorporation of folk tunes; the barbaric nature of the central Allegro molto capriccioso; the desolate landscape of the third and final movement, surely informed by the First World War which raged at the time of its composition. The final two pizzicato intervals sounded by viola and cello could possibly represent, Fejes opined, the last two shots of the war, or perhaps the last two bells heralding its end. During this aural landscape, a passing police car offered a very credible descant to one harmony, prompting me to wonder how Cage and Bartók might have compared the moment.

The rhythmic vigour of the central movement, often secured by ostinato, was attacked with laudable gusto by the quartet and Michael Lloyd’s bow was a few horsehairs down by the end. In more sensitive moments, rubato and dynamics were impressive. This felt like a quartet who frequently play together. One seldom has the chance to hear Bartók’s quartets performed live and, given the quality of this performance, and its warm reception, this seems a great pity.

Like Bartók, Beethoven wrote quartets throughout his life. Unlike Bartók, who wrote a total of six, Beethoven lived at a time when publishing quartets in sets of six was the norm. Introducing the String Quartet in G major, Op. 18 no 2, Michael Lloyd explained that compositional order and opus number do not always match, and that the order of appearance of the quartets in this 1802 set was, in fact, 3, 1, 2, 4, 6, 5. He also mentioned the habit of instrumental works of the period being nicknamed and that this particular one was known as the Komplimentier Quartett – “the quartet of bows and curtsies” – as the opening phrase put some in mind of the kind of social etiquette one might witness at a ball. Certainly the associated elegance was convincingly conveyed here, especially in some of Fejes’ high, ornamental passages. The serenity found in many Beethoven slow movements was wonderfully captured in the Adagio cantabile and offset in this movement’s own central Allegro.

Josef Pacewicz joined the now seated quartet as soloist in Brahms’ 1891 Quintet in B minor for clarinet and strings. Before playing, he explained that Brahms was so impressed by the playing of Richard Mülhfeld that he came out of retirement, writing four works, one of which was this quintet. I noticed just before the performance began that Pacewicz had coughed once or twice and even sneezed at one point. I admired his courage for undertaking a work written for a virtuoso if feeling even slightly under the weather. However, I need not have fretted. Pacewicz is a supremely lyrical and musical player and pulled off a great performance here. Such was his cool that, upon noticing that the rear legs of his chair were millimetres from the edge of the dais, he merely smiled at neighbouring Rachel Lee.

Despite the composer being sufficiently energised to break off retirement, the overall mood of this work is far from animated. However, neither is it melancholic. Its essence struck me in the Adagio, whose mood seems to convey the seasoned resignation of one who has accepted that a bygone age is exactly that. If that is indeed the expressive intent, I felt that the quintet really clinched this. It seems one of the miracles of music that a mood as complex as, say, “wistful yet neither sentimental nor self-pitying” can pass from composer, through performers, to listener. Pacewicz made light work of the movement’s technically fiendish climactic moments which precede the opening theme’s return. Like the Bartók, this work finishes quietly, without flourish. I felt that this mirroring was a nice touch of programming and suggested confidence in the musical sophistication of the audience, who might be as content to end the afternoon in reflective as opposed to triumphant mood.

****1