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Joana Ly and Ed McCallugh,violins;
Rebecca Breen and Johan Hoglind, violas;
Davina Shum and Pedro Silva, ‘cellos.

Strauss String Sextet from Capriccio, Op 85;
Mozart String Quintet No 4 in G minor, K516;
Brahms String Quintet No 2 in G major, Op 111.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)Sextet from Capriccio  

Capriccio, composed in 1942, and Richard Strauss’ last stage work, is an opera about an opera, constructed as a series of elegant salon conversations dealing with a question that has bedevilled opera lovers for centuries: which is more important, the words or the music?

The opera begins with a lusciously-scored string sextet that functions both as a prelude to the action and as the first topic of conversation in the on-stage drama.  This is because halfway through, as the curtain rises and the stage lights up, it is revealed that the six string players are in fact performing a new work written by the Countess’ composer-suitor especially for her, in front of her, in the elegant Rococo drawing room that is the set for the first scene in the opera.

Unifying the score of this sextet is the recurring melodic motive announced by the first violin in the opening bars, (a motif remarkably similar to the phrase rippling endlessly through Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture). It is the gentle conversation between this and other gracious motifs in the texture, which makes this sextet such an appropriate introduction to an opera that takes the discussion of music itself as its principal dramatic aim.

W. A. Mozart (1756-1791)Quintet in G Minor, K516

Allegro

Menuetto: Allegretto

Adagio ma non troppo

Adagio – Allegro

The year of 1787, when this work was written, was marked for the composer by misfortune and frustration over his lack of success in Vienna, a relatively fallow period compositionally, and his father’s serious illness. Mozart wrote to his father: “I have now made a habit of being prepared in all the affairs of life for the worst.” (i.e death). Musical keys undoubtedly have strong psychological associations, and G minor for Mozart, as also evidenced in his 40th Symphony and Piano Quartet K478, suggests agitation, desperation, and confrontations with anguish.

The opening is the most disconsolate in all Mozart: a succession of sighing, broken phrases underpinned by chromatically drooping harmonies.  The effect is claustrophobic. Just as the music seems to be modulating to the major, it sinks gloomily back to the minor for the yearning second subject. The theme reaches an extreme pitch of dissonant anguish at the climax of the development, with successive entries grating against each other, before eventually subsiding in weary resignation in the coda.

After the first movement’s pathos and agitation, the Minuet adds a note of violence, with its disruptive syncopations, pauses and ferociously accented off-beat chords. No eighteenth century Minuet is further removed from the decorous and courtly dance. The Trio takes the Minuet’s aching cadential phrase and transforms and expands it in G major. As so often in Schubert, the major key here seems more heartbreaking than the minor.

Belying its serene, hymn-like opening, the Adagio ma non troppo, in E flat, with all instruments muted, is as disturbed as the first two movements. The second subject opens with an impassioned, plunging melody in B flat minor, broken by cries of deep pain; then, after another dense chromatic thicket, the first violin euphorically reinterprets the minor theme in the major.

As a discarded eight-bar sketch reveals, Mozart originally toyed with the idea of a G minor finale. Instead he wrote a G minor Adagio introduction of tragic eloquence: a halting, appoggiatura-laden arioso with desultory echoes, over the throbbing inner voices that were such a prominent feature of the first and third 3rd movements. After the music has reached an extreme point of stress, the Allegro’s unsullied G major comes as a necessary resolution of the work’s accumulated harmonic tensions.

Interval

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)String Sextet No 2, Op 36 in G  

Allegro non troppo

Scherzo – Allegro non troppo – Presto giocoso

Adagio

Poco allegro

The G major Sextet (composed 1864-65) is almost exactly contemporary to the Piano Quintet, and is a considerably more sophisticated and complex work than the Sextet in B flat, Op. 18.  While such a comparison should not diminish the beauty and nobility of the much-loved earlier piece, the G major is entirely on another level in terms of form, harmony, and counterpoint.  The richness of the string sonority is unrivalled in Brahms’s chamber music output. From the outset, the home key is undermined by half-step motion, borrowings from the minor key, and a temporary pivot to the foreign key of E flat.  The end of the exposition contains an unusually literal biographical reference: Brahms had a passionate relationship with Agathe von Siebold, and was even engaged to her in 1859.  In an strange mixture of anxiety and pride, Brahms broke off the engagement.  At the climax of the second theme, Brahms spells out Agathe’s name:  In German notation, B-natural is called H, so the sequence A-G-A-B-E is actually A-G-A-H-E.   Brahms even included the T by placing its closest musical equivalent D in harmony with the B (H).   He constructed the succeeding music so that the AGA(T)HE cipher can also appear on its original pitches when the music is transposed in the recapitulation.

The stately Scherzo is based on the opening bars of the A minor Gavotte from a series of unpublished neo-baroque keyboard dances written in the 1850s. The Presto giocoso Trio provides an extreme contrast, but the transition back to the Scherzo is especially artful.  

As in the other sextet, the slow movement is a Theme and Variations. Brahms introduces fugal counterpoint in the third and fourth variations. The slow final variation and the exquisite coda are in the serene major.  

The finale, utilizes artful tremolo effects, placed in contrast with a more soulful, yearning theme.

Artist con Brio

Portuguese violinist Joana Ly started playing violin aged four, and soon joined the Aveiro Conservatoire of Music, continuing her studies at the Royal College of Music.  Joana now plays in the Corran Quartet, and co-manages Artisti con Brio. She has been a member and guest in Garsington Opera, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, London Mozart Players, Southbank Sinfonia, Britten Sinfonia, Opera North, Orpheus Sinfonia, Philharmonia Amsterdam, and Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester.  Whilst studying in London, Joana was a recipient of a Gulbenkian Scholarship.  In 2016, she performed the complete Beethoven Sonatas in a four-concert cycle in London.

Cara Laskaris, awarded the Vivienne Price performance prize in the Queen Elizabeth Hall when she was just 13 years old, went on to graduate at Oxford University with a double first degree.   Cara is acclaimed for her “virtuosic clarity” (The Telegraph) and “extraordinary talent” (Rosemary Warren-Green).   Recent highlights include performing chamber music at the Southbank Centre and playing solo violin in a production at Royal Opera House awarded five star reviews in national press, performing concertos at venues including St John’s Smith Square, Blenheim Palace and BBC radio.  She is a member of Southbank Sinfonia, alsoplaying with orchestras including Orpheus Sinfonia, London Contemporary Orchestra, Brandenburg Sinfonia and Glyndebourne. Cara is very grateful to the Harrison Frank Foundation for the loan of a fine 1726 “Lavazza” violin.

Irish violist Rebecca Breen is a prize winner and Masters graduate of the Royal College of Music, where she also featured as a RCM Rising Star, with performances at the Cadogan Hall, Wigmore Hall and the Royal Festival Hall. She is principal viola of chamber ensemble Synchrony, and has worked with English Chamber Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Casalmaggiore International Festival in Italy and the Academia Internacional de Música Festival in Catalunya. Rebecca now teaches string chamber music at Junior departments of both Royal Academy of Music and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and is involved also in Hackney Youth Music.

Johan Höglind is a Swedish violist from Stockholm. He graduated from the Royal College of Music in Stockholm with a bachelors degree, then a Master in Performance degree from the Royal College of Music in London. He has been a long term member of the Baltic Sea Philharmonics and has worked in Sweden as well as New Zealand. He has held the position of co-principal in the Lapland chamber orchestra in Rovaniemi, Finland, and is currently based in London, where he enjoys a busy freelancing life.

Davina Shum, born in Auckland New Zealand, studied at the University of Auckland and the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.  She held the Manchester Cello Fellowship with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and was a member of the Sydney Sinfonia.  In 2013 Davina joined Southbank Sinfonia in London performing in the Royal Opera House, the Southbank Centre and the Royal Albert Hall, with chamber music performances in the Royal Opera House’s Crush Room and Paul Hamlyn Hall.  Davina is also the co-creator and co-host of a new podcast Musicians’ Weekend, which explores the weird and wonderful lives of those who keep music-making alive.

Molly McWhirter, Scottish cellist born in Linlithgow, began playing at nine years old. After the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, she graduated with distinction as a Master’s degree Performance from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.  As a dedicated chamber musician, Molly has studied with members of the London Haydn, Dante, Heath, Chilingirian and Endellion Quartets. Orchestral highlights include work with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchrestra’s Professional Strings Experience Scheme, Sinfonia Cymru the LSO and Academy of St Martin in the Fields. When she’s not playing cello, Molly spends her time running, kickboxing, escaping to the countryside, and drinking copious amounts of coffee

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