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The Solem Quartet

Amy Tress                Violin
William Newell         Violin
Alistair Vennart       Viola
Stephanie Tress     ‘Cello

 Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

String Quartet in D Major, Op 76 No 3 Hob III:79 (1796)

Largo ma non troppo – Cantabile e mesto
Menuetto – Allegro
Finale – Presto

Haydn’s six Op 76 string quartets were written in 1796 when he was 60, and had passed beyond being in the service of and closeted at the home of the Esterhazy family.   He had spent time in London and Paris with success and acclaim.  He was free to write what interested him, above all major choral work,s including in due course The Creation, The Seasons andthe Seven Last Words of Christ.

But Haydn also wanted to take the string quartet into new territory, writing for a new and public audience – music which was more experimental, more technically demanding, with more intensely emotional content, perhaps reflecting the changing times generated by the French Revolution and the dawn of Romanticism.

Tonight’s Op 76 No 5 is sometimes known as ‘The Largo’or the ‘Freidhofsquartett’(‘Graveyard’) quartet because of the second, slow, movement.  It is in the highly unusual key of F sharp major and has a strange unearthly sonority – the weighty and most modern movement in emotional content.  It starts and mostly continues as a first violin solo, but with some equally heartfelt solos and duets from the other instruments. Quite what Haydn was saying in this movement is the subject of much psychological analysis and creative speculation – but there is no simple answer.

The other movements are not at all similar – but also more quietly revolutionary, in a say illustrating the progression seen in the string quartet genre in Haydn’s time – and substantially in his hands.

Robert Schumann (1810-56)

String Quartet No 3 in A Major, Op 41 No 3 (1842)

Andante espressivo – Allegretto molto moderato
Assai agitato
Adagio molto
Finale – Allegro molto vivace

Schumann wrote all three of his string quartets in 1842 – a time when he was quickly discovering his and Clara’s difficult married relationship, describing himself as ‘always sick and melancholy’.  Hard work was one of his remedies.

Schumann had serious views of the purpose of string quartets – the composer must understand their history, particularly Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, but must also innovate; the genre should not borrow stylistically from symphonic or operatic composition; quartets should be like conversations among the instruments, which should contribute equally.  Writing to his publishers in 1847, he said ‘My Quartets ….have taken on a special meaning for me since the death of Mendelssohn [to whom he had dedicated the quartets].I still view them as the best works of my earlier period, and Mendelssohn often expressed a similar opinion to me.’ 

Quartet No 3 starts with a slow introduction. The idea he presents, a falling fifth, echoes the scherzo of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony throughout the first movement, as the quartet moves through murky tonalities, until a final cello sigh, a falling fifth, solidifies the tonality of A major.

The significance of the Assai agitatotheme and variations movement only becomes apparent in a later variation, when it is presented in a gloomy canon between the first violin and viola.  Schumann’s rhythms are also seen through a glass darkly – it takes some time to hear the downbeat.  Schumann’s Romantic sensibility comes to the fore in the Adagio moltothird movement, with lyrical swells and lush harmonies.

The final movement on the other hand consists of a collection of character pieces, typical of Schumann.  A constant dotted rhythm provides unity through contrasting sections, returning to bounce the Quartet to its rousing conclusion.


Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827)

String Quartet in C Major Op 59 No 3 – ‘Razumovsky No 3’  (1806)

Andante con moto – Allegro vivace
Andant con moto quasi allegretto
Menuetto (Grazioso)
Allego molto

Beethoven was commissioned to write the three Op 59 Quartets by Count Andreas Kyrilovich Razumovsky, the Russian Ambassador to Vienna, a music lover who maintained his own string quartet as well as being himself a talented violinist.

Beethoven’s earlier string quartets could be performed by talented amateurs.  The Op 59 quartets of his ‘Middle’ period were different – they demanded professional standard of performance, as well as being more challenging for listeners.  When some complained, Beethoven allegedly said he had written for ‘listeners who did not yet exist’.

The sense of struggle and triumph over adversity has led some to call Op 59 No 3 Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Quartet. And we should reflect on the quartet’s date, 1806 – a time when the rest of Europe was in an existential struggle against Napoleon; Austria had lost the great Battle of Austerlitz; the French had seized Vienna and the Austrian Emperor had been forced to settle with Napoleon at the end of 1805.  There are Russian themes in all three Op 59 quartets, including tonight’s.  Was the Russian Ambassador using music to remind his diplomatic colleagues ‘what we are fighting for’ – bearing in mind that Beethoven too detested Napoleon after he had crowned himself Emperor in 1801?

The Quartet certainly begins by evoking turmoil and instability, with no consistent key, which many draw parallels with Mozart’s ‘Dissonant’ String Quartet K465.  Yet it evolves into a bright Allegro.

The second movement makes use of an augmented second in the descending scale in its opening.  This interval, repeated throughout the movement, gives it an association with the ‘Hungarian scale’, which together with its sparse texture and comfortless melodies, evokes a Russian feel – a sense of vast, barren landscapes.

The third movement is a lighter menuetto, giving the motif subsequently turned upside down for the final movement – a fugal exposition, starting with the viola, and the unusually long motif of 10 bars, and performed at a frantic pace. About half way through, a contrasting theme is introduced, moving in minims,.  The movement concludes with a tremendous ‘Mannheim crescendo’.

 The performers

The Solem Quartetis quickly building a decisive presence in the London chamber music world, with recent appearances at the Wigmore Hall, King’s Place, St John’s Smith Square and St Martin’s in the Fields.  It is also Quartet in Residence at Liverpool University.

Amy Tress, violin, grew up in East Molesey.  She studied music at Christ Church Oxford, winning the Gibbs Prize for the highest First Class Honours degree, before completing her studies at the Royal College of Music and the Schola di Musica at Fiesole.  Amy is also violinist with Lipatti Piano Quartet and plays regularly with the unaccompanied string orchestra 12ensemble.  She also teaches violin at Eton College.

Amy plays composite Guarneri violin made in Cremona in 1683, which she bought at auction.

William Newell, violin, grew up in Romford, Essex, and graduated with Distinction in his Masters Degree at the Guildhall College of Music and Drama, winning the St James Piccadilly Prize and the Sherriff’s Prize for music on graduating in 2017.  Alongside the Solem Quartet, William plays with the Ensemble Nova Luce.  He is also a member of the Mead Men, a sea shanty group, and has also appeared in television performances with Eminem, Clean Bandit, We Are the Ocean and Deacon Blue.

William plays an early 20thcentury violin by the Voller Brothers, who worked in Stretham.

Alistair Vennartis from Northumberland and started playing the viola when he was 9 years old. He studied music at the University of Manchester, followed by the Royal Northern College of Music. He was awarded the Thomas Barrett Prize for Viola in 2013.  Alistair works professionally with the Halle, Symphonia Cymru, the Northern Chamber Orchestra, the BBC Philharmonic and Royal Northern Sinfonia. He has also appeared as a soloist in Switzerland, Germany, Italy and the UK.

Alistair plays a viola made in 1989 by Don Tatum in Cardiff.

Stephanie Tress ‘cello, also grew up in East Moleseyand studied first with the RCM Junior Department, before joining the Joint Course at the University of Manchester and Royal Northern College of Music, graduating with First Class Degrees at both institutions and winning a number of prizes including the Sir John Barbarolli Prize for ‘Cello.   Stephanie also plays with the Halle, BBC Philharmonic, the Manchester Camerata and Opera North.

Stephanie plays a ‘cello made in 1820 by Thomas Kennedy in London.

To contact the Quartet, email solemquartet@gmail.com

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