Tim Rutherford-Johnson in conversation with Peter Sheppard Skærved about the Kreutzer Quartet Programes for Aldeburgh 2023

Posted on June 12th, 2023 by


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The Kreutzer Quartet’s first violinist Peter Sheppard Skærved talks to me (over Zoom) in front of a case of thick wooden shelves stuffed with books, manuscripts and papers. We’re discussing the two concerts he has programmed at Aldeburgh this year. Like the shelves behind him, and the concerts too, it’s a conversation crammed with ideas and enthusiasms, but it repeatedly returns to the same topic: of dialogue, between musicians, between composers and players, between composers, or between past and present.

‘The variety of languages within the concerts reflects our broad interests as musicians’, he tells me. ‘It’s one of the things we are most passionate about as a group: getting past the idea that there are certain composers whose work is not heard alongside other composers; that there are certain languages we are interested in and others in which we are not.’

He gives the examples of Michael Finnissy and David Matthews: two composers with whom the quartet has worked for many years. (Sadie Harrison, heard yesterday, is another.) Both are British and were born in the mid-1940s, yet on the surface their musical languages could hardly be further apart. David Matthews is drawn to Classical values, which are reflected in this, his 17th string quartet and the sixth
he has written for the Kreutzers. Concise, clear in structure and using a chromatically inflected tonal language, it shares a lineage with the quartets of Britten and Tippett, both men Matthews knew well. Its finale reflects an unusual correspondence with that tradition. It began in a dream: ‘I was sitting at a rather beautiful piano with a vocal score of Billy Budd’, Matthews says. ‘I had just attended a rehearsal, but the music I heard wasn’t Britten’s, neither was the vocal score’s. I played five andante bars, then woke up and found I could remember what I had played exactly, so I wrote it down and decided I could use it for the opening of my finale.’

If every work of art poses a question, its reception over time is a series of partial answers. Sensitive to that endless dialogue that constitutes the ongoing life of a musical work, Michael Finnissy often enters its stream in completions, transcriptions or reimaginings of pre-existing works. Not in order to provide his own answer, as such, but to make new questions out of previous answers. One such work is his Continuation and Coda to Bach’s Contrapunctus XIX, a continuation of the unfinished fugue at the end of Bach’s The Art of Fugue. Rather than merely complete the work as a contrapuntal exercise, Finnissy folds in some of the attempts by other composers
(including Busoni, a frequent touchstone of his) to do the same. The result is a tour-de-force of shifting stylistic sands, setting the melodic and rhythmic contours of Bach’s original within an increasingly estranged harmonic language. Just as unity seems to have completely unravelled, Finnissy breaks off for a brief, reflective coda: listening to the work myself, I can only hear this as another invitation to carry on.

Bach’s manuscript of the final page of The Art of Fugue. The handwritten note is by C.P.E. Bach (‘While working on this fugue, which introduces the name BACH [ie B flat–A–C–B natural] in the countersubject, the composer died.’)

The Kreutzers have long been champions of Priaulx Rainier’s challenging and highly original work. Sheppard Skærved first heard her music as a teenager and it has since profoundly shaped his own life as a musician:

‘She taught a lot of the people around me, and at least four of the composers with whom I have worked very closely’.

The String Quartet in C minor, composed in 1939 when Rainier was 36, is one of her first acknowledged works and among her most important. Delayed by war, and the disinterest of several quartets who were sent copies of its score, its first performance – by the Zorian Quartet – came five years after its composition. Yet it was immediately well received, being performed widely, recorded (by the Amadeus Quartet) and even choreographed (by Doris Humphrey) for the José Limon Dance Company. Reviewing the premiere for the Observer, William Glock wrote that ‘Had Miss Rainier written nothing but the first movement, she would still be one of our best composers’. That first movement is severe in character, constructed around a dialogue between a chromatically winding melody passed among the instruments, and darkly coloured tutti chords. The third-movement Andante is similarly given to melody – pensive this time in mood, resolving into a kind of determination. But Rainier’s originality is most apparent in the faster, even-numbered movements: a Vivace of interlocking pizzicato and quicksilver melodies that betrays the enduring influence of the music, insects and click languages of her childhood in Natal, South Africa; and an angular Presto finale of sudden and fragmentary changes in mood and perspective.

Mozart’s last string quartet, No.23, belongs to a set of three known as the ‘Prussian’ quartets, intended for the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II. (In the event Mozart, as ever short of funds, sold them, undedicated, to a publisher.) Friedrich was an amateur cellist, and all three quartets contain prominent cello lines intended to flatter the King. Yet this hardly makes them meek or trivial: No.23 is especially renowned for its borrowings from Hungarian folk music (the drones and snapping accents of its Minuetto), and for the startling key changes of its perpetuum mobile finale. The musical texture is full of space, a continually evolving conversation of two or three voices at a time; one rarely hears all four at once. It is ‘an amazing act of compositional acrobatics’, says Sheppard Skærved, ‘which doesn’t have the set, comfortable feeling of other quartets – where there’s a bedded-down sort of technique that is not endangered in the way this is’. Instead, he continues, there’s a sense that things are spinning off into the air, like fireworks, or plates in a circus act gone awry. ‘And we love that’.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson © 2023