by Rachel Beaumont

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Is it wrong to review someone's birthday: Psophos Quartet at Staplefield

Bridge's Idyll no.1, Ravel's Quartet and Berg's Lyric Suite
Psophos Quartet
Staplefield Grange
27 May 2017

I have qualms about reviewing someone's birthday party. But then again, at a rate of one reviewable party every thirty years the precedent it sets is not exactly dangerous, so here goes.

Hugh likes Berg (this is an understatement); he also likes his home in Staplefield (ditto); he's also generous (ditto) and prone to extravagance (ditto ditto). Thus a group of around forty acolytes were gathered on Saturday for what was for me so far (and it may remain so) a once-in-a-lifetime experience of live professional chamber music in an actual chamber.

The acoustics of Hugh's sitting room when filled with people turn out to be a scaled-up version of the Wigmore Hall (perhaps this is the Wigmore's secret). The audience was very attentive, although someone (Ed) still coughed. Quickly shifting patterns of shade and sunshine could be seen through the windows behind the quartet, and whenever their music stopped the air filled with birdsong.

Such intimacy must be quite an intimidating environment in which to assay some challenging music, but Psophos seemed entirely unfazed. Indeed, I'm tempted to accuse the leader Eric Lacrout of feeling too much at home, with his enthusiastic respiration sometimes threatening to occlude the music. But that would be churlish.

The Bridge was Psophos's suggestion, probably just because they like it but which I can and will now take to be a tragedy-tinged post-Brexit gesture. It's not a piece I know but it was a wise (if melancholic) contribution to this programme: compelling and elegantly constructed on a near-miniature scale, a tidy counterbalance to the behemoths that followed.

The Ravel had minor issues of intonation and ensemble throughout, as one might expect of a group that has had to practice an even more fearsomely difficult piece. Even despite these wobbles Psophos managed to imbue the piece with the sort of debonair suavity I like and choose to think only French quartets can realize.

The Berg found Psophos on firmer technical ground in what was on the whole a mightily impressive performance. Only the whispered Allegro misterioso verged on being too mysterious to make sense of, but that could well have been the effect of the unusually close acoustic. The final two movements in particular worked tremendously well, the individual voices within the quartet superbly balanced and the ensemble and direction of thought seemingly united.

The ending of the Berg was different from all my previous experiences of the piece, as the rocking viola (the excellent Cécile Grassi) was swallowed not by silence but by the cocktail of avian calls from outside. It felt less bleak than I usually find it, but also weighted with nostalgia: this, more intensely than any other live performance, was the only time I shall hear that piece in this way. At least, until Hugh celebrates his 60th.

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