The group dynamics in an intense four-way marriage

A new film gives an accurate snapshot of the bizarre dynamics involved in a typical string quartet

Mark Ivanir, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken and Catherine Keener in A Late Quartet

Mark Ivanir, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken and Catherine Keener in A Late Quartet

Tue, Apr 9, 2013, 06:00

Yaron Zilberman’s fascinating new film, A Late Quartet, has people thinking and talking and writing about string quartets. And listening, too. Beethoven’s late Quartet in C sharp minor is crucial to the plot. In the musical world, stories about quartets are legion. Having four people who live in each other’s pockets, rehearse, tour and make recordings together, and perform in the public gaze is a sure recipe for unusually complicated relationships.

I’ve heard tell of a group where two players reached the point of not speaking to each other, so they relayed all communications to each other through one of the other players. There’s another quartet in which one member is said to have remained an outsider, and years ago when I heard them in the RDS, sure enough, three players traipsed off on one side of the stage, and the other walked straight through the central gap in the curtain behind them.

The case of the American Audubon Quartet, three of whom turned on their leader and fired him, is well-documented. He went to court, won substantial damages ($611,000) and even though he settled for less, the row still cost two of the players their house and their instruments – they still play them, but only on a 10-year loan from the dealer to whom they had to sell them.

Think of a quartet as a peculiarly intense, four-way marriage, and you’ll be on the right lines. And, just as no two marriages are alike, the internal tensions of quartets are all different, too. The real observers of quartets are not the audiences they play for. They’re the players themselves, and the other musicians with whom they team up. Bickering, teasing, baiting, all sliding along well-worn grooves, are what the first-hand reports mention most, a kind of behaviour about which those involved seem to be totally oblivious.

The fictional, New York-based Fugue Quartet of Zilberman’s film start to fall apart after their cellist is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. The second violinist (whose wife is the group’s viola player) has a fling, and demands that in future the leadership rotate. The leader starts an affair with his colleagues’ daughter, who’s also his pupil. It may sound extreme, but I’ve heard of worse in the case of a real life quartet.

The characters blend waffle and insight as they talk about music in elegant Upper East Side surroundings. The representation is probably no more unrealistic than that of other professions in the movies, and the actors do no better than most as they handle their instruments and mime the music (here’s a hint: if the sound has vibrato, the finger needs to vibrate). But the film does convey a core truth, that it’s the music itself that holds everything together. The string quartet is one of the richest repertoires, and I’ve never met any quartet in which the players don’t feel privileged to have so much great music to work on.

There are, of course, happy quartets, too, made up of people who don’t get on each other’s nerves, whose disagreements don’t get out of control, who negotiate the inevitable conflicts and arguments in sensible and productively structured ways. But you won’t find a film or a play about them, any more often than you’ll find one about a marriage that’s blissful right to the very end.


Calleja’s on-stage departure
Talking of musicians leaving the stage, that’s what happened to the Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja at the NCH on Saturday. Well, he didn’t actually leave. But, after a prolonged interval that ran for 40 minutes, he still wasn’t ready to come back. He’d had a blackout, he explained, and for the first time in his career an ambulance was called to a venue for him.

There was nothing to worry about in his singing. Calleja is an arresting presence, physically and vocally. He opens his mouth, he sings, and you are overcome.

He’s musicianly and stylish, too, in ways that are not to be taken for granted from great voices. But most of all, he’s a generous singer, with a gorgeous, robust, grainy tone that’s unexpectedly sweet on top. The RTÉ NSO under Proinnsías Ó Duinn partnered him with a weight and depth that helped create a feeling of total immersion. The support act was the always vivacious soprano Claudia Boyle, whose sheer showmanship seemed for a while like it might steal the show from the temporarily absent Calleja.


Double bass takes centre-stage


The week before Easter there was a clash between Arvo Pärt’s Passio, given by the National Chamber Choir under Paul Hillier, and a recital by double bassist

David Daly, Dublin-born, but now the principal double-bassist of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. I opted to go to the recital, not having been at a concert by double-bass and piano since some time in the last century.

There is, of course, something elephantine about the double bass when it abandons its essential role in the orchestra to go out on its own. Its singing voice is a little strained and lacks the bloom of the cello in the same register. In its lowest range it is utterly unique, rich and soft-textured in a way that makes you smile and want to rub your tummy.

Mostly, though, from a musical point of view, it’s a bit of a curiosity. It’s fun to hear historic pieces specially written for it. Daly and his partner at the piano, Duncan Honeybourne, traversed three centuries in works by Eccles, Bottesini and Glière. But the musical content here was thin, so the programme also borrowed some standard repertoire, Bruch’s Kol Nidrei and Schubert’s Arpeggione sonata, both done better than you might imagine, but not quite as well as you might like.

The double bass comes into its own in modern repertoire specially written for it, and Daly premièred a new work by John Kinsella, 15 April 1912. The date of the title is the date of the sinking of the Titanic , from which a relation of Daly’s, a musician, managed to survive. The extraordinary set of connections gave Kinsella the opportunity for atmospheric scene-setting and programmatic effects, as well as a basis for musical quotation. Here, at last, the fit of music and instrument seemed spot on.

Honeybourne also offered a performance of Aloys Fleischmann’s Suite for Piano (originally published in 1935 as Sreath do Phiano by Muiris Ó Ronáin) and made the piece sound grittier than I’ve ever heard it before.

mdervan@irishtimes.com