New Helsinki String Quartet
Quartet movement in C minor, D703 - Schubert
Quartet in F - Ravel
Quartet No 4 - Bartok
Kilkenny Arts Week continued its Nordic focus on Sunday with a visit from the New Helsinki String Quartet. This young group came to international attention by winning a number of prizes at the 1994 London International String Quartet Competition, including the audience prize and the award for best performance of the set contemporary work.
Their Kilkenny programme had nothing contemporary about it, the most recent work being Bartok's Fourth Quartet of 1928. From the taut motivic intertwinings of the opening Allegro to the chunky chordal crunches of the finale, this is one of the composer's finest creations, with a spare central nocturne surrounded by what are in effect two scherzos, the first flashing by in eerie twittering, the second a sparky essay in pizzicato. The Finnish players handled it all with a sense of circumspection. It was as if, in their desire to ensure that nothing was overstated, they contrived also to avoid too much of the full-bloodedness that the music seems to call for.
The careful reserve that characterised the New Helsinki's playing sounded rather too reserved for the opening, isolated quartet movement by Schubert. But in Ravel's Quartet in F the dividends were rich indeed. We know from those who worked with him that Ravel was an exacting taskmaster about performances of his music. And the exactness of a reading like the Finns', shorn of all superfluity and trusting in the judgment of his refined French ear, would surely have pleased him.
Handled with such sensitivity, the chords sound radiant, the harmonic movement fresh, and the melodic writing both light and potent. It's not often that Ravel's sole quartet is made to sound as winning as this.