The Coull Quartet at The Lion Ballroom

Roger Coull (violin) Philip Gallaway (violin) Jonathan Barritt (viola) Nicholas Roberts (cello)

By Stella Seaton-Sims

Whistling wind, glistening rain and, intermittently, thankfully ... the sun. Its boundless light - amidst potential gloom - enhances with a sheen those beautiful autumn colours we love so much - despite their likely heralding the approach of inclement winter weather. Thus was Herefordshire! But yes - there's always that ubiquitous silver lining - that's often gold! This was surely so at Leominster's splendid Lion Ballroom when the Coull Quartet came to town!

Quartets offer so much - diminutive compared with the powerful all-embracing orchestra - but these four excellent players certainly offered all that was possible. Inspired, the audience responded with exuberance throughout the entire programme - and no wonder - every sequence of notes, written by all four composers, was played with the fine precision and profound interpretative understanding that can only be born of long collaboration. Dare I say it - sometimes age is an advantage!

The Coull virtuosity sprang into gear immediately - in the second of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's three 'Prussian' String Quartets - written in his last year and dedicated to the cello-playing King of Prussia. Texturising higher parts amalgamated in the Allegro to provide an airy flight of autumnal fancy - with light, multi-coloured leaves seeming to scatter their way towards an earth inhabited by the weighty cello. Energetic, beautiful melodies easily related to the harmonies beneath in a seasonal blustering that, though relentless and active, never seemed negative or disharmonious in, and like, nature. The peaceful Larghetto seemed to bring the musical scenario indoors to where an opera-like aria, in contrast, seemed appropriate. One could imagine, in one's mind's eye, the atmospheric 'stage' of any of Mozart's superb operas and the introduction and out-playing of human life thereon. Graceful passages from violins and viola intersected, in dialogue, with the particularly wonderful out-pourings of the cello - offering serenity to the ear, mind and soul. Thus, unhurried Mozartian beauty rose to a satisfying end and a fascinating contrast took over in the Minuet and Trio. Its dignified steps developed an intriguing palette of ideas and lively sound images - exploiting each instrument's individuality. Shaken and stirred by a rushing inter-locution, a pre-experienced pattern preluded the final Allegro. Bouncing along with energy, life forces ebbed and flowed to a rapid end - the superb players having fully displayed the anticipated riches of this beloved composer's musical 'genius'.

With 'Crisantemi', by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), we first entered the reflective world of death and remembrance ('chrysanthemums' being the traditional Italian flowers of mourning). Also featuring 'operatic' passages (music later re-used in the opera 'Manon Lescaut'), this lovely piece glowed with sheer beauty - as befits an elegy. It drew together the strands of an entire life, light and dark, in its notes, and a certain 'letting-go', a mournful regret, permeated the flowing melodies and inter-twining harmonies. This brief tribute (written in one night) exuded affection and respect and one could easily imagine the deceased's life progressing through episodes that rendered his earthly existence special and memorable. As 'ashes to ashes and dust to dust', 'Crisantemi' seemed to close the life's circle - like a wreath.

Post-interval - an experience all audiences relish - a première played by a great quartet! Derek Smith's String Quartet No. 5, otherwise entitled 'Leonardo Images' and 'In memoriam Fukushima 11 March 2011', proved especially poignant on Remembrance Sunday. Though not specifically war-related, Derek referred, in a programme note, to historic disasters, resulting in mass loss of life, that have befallen mankind over recent centuries... Whether plague (the subject of menacing drawings by Leonardo) or the catastrophic 21st century aftermath of a natural tsunami (as at Fukushima's nuclear power plant), the horrifying consequences and associated feelings are common to all. Derek attempted, he said, in this single movement, 'to capture the brooding menace which threatens people on the verge of panic while trying to restore some kind of civilised order despite the devastation which surrounds them.' He did capture it ... Relentless and recurring inter-weavings of over-lying and under-lying motifs, almost deluged by their own irresistible, weighty textures, painted dreadful scenes of fragile humanity searching frantically in the opaque darkness for the light of relief, for a hand-hold or foot-hold that might provide potential hope and stability. The horror relented at times into calm and fleeting optimism but a terrified desperation to 'escape' to a better place, a freedom, predominated within this powerful music. A late reference to the 'Dies Irae' of Tomas Victoria's 1603 Requiem prepared the listener for what might have evolved into a passionate and relatively stabilised conclusion, but we were, surprisingly, left fearful at the end - unknowing whether respite may, or may not, have come...

Although lacking any cheer or positivity, 'Leonardo Images' exuded an over-whelming power that elicited, from a most attentive audience, obvious approval. Extreme poignancy, especially on Remembrance Sunday, is best savoured in a totally receptive state of mind and this piece, composed in Derek's characteristically courageous and refreshing style, immediately drew me into that state and reminded me of what I like most about his music - its sheer sincerity. The more I hear, the more I like it. He seems to lay out possibilities - that acknowledge the validity of listeners' personal perceptions ... their various states, along life's path, that influence their receptivity. I think he offers a great deal that many other composers don't - a knife-edge of brave honesty that may be taken positively or negatively but seldom without any feeling at all. He produces a varied repertoire of original works for soloists, small and large ensembles - and valuable arrangements of others' music for transformed combinations of instruments - born of his long experience of life, his own sensitivity, percipience and appreciation. He may sometimes provoke controversy but there's little doubting the rich and profound wellspring whence it all flows...

As with the contrasting, and magnificent, Antonin Dvorak's 'American' String Quartet in F (Op 96) - which came next. The opening movement revived the dance of life - an unending hopeful and melodious liberty entirely congruous with what we've considered the American Dream. As ever with Dvorak's 19th century Americana - he conjured up expansive, westward horizons alongside intimate sketches of active country life - all contemplated, interpreted and presented to us by this European from 'across the great divide'. Beautiful harmonies, tunes and images grew ever greater through the pure skill of the four performers - playing with an astonishing fluidity, incisiveness and open vivacity. The expressive Lento began with a lilt that, juxtaposing fascinating sounds and variation, lifted its melody to amazing heights. The Molto vivace danced, yet again, from the very beginning, through a lively scene in clear, unrestrained air - from coast to coast - East to West, West to East. Strong playing aimed at, and penetrated, the human essence at its focus and enabled an effortless rendition, and receipt, of positive layer upon layer of development. The Finale was fervent, energetic and even more precise with episodes of re-charging and reflective calm - then the flighty helter-skelter sped from A to B and beyond! It all seemed to beseech us to heed: 'Hey - don't give up on your focus, life and happiness - whatever the current state of the United States!'

This was a great concert played by great players - and received with great applause from an audience obviously really glad to be there!