I was delighted to be invited to join last weekend’s Chamber Music Academy at the Purcell School. An extra viola was required for the day and I played the first session with a string quartet who looked at the legendary Borodin String Quartet No. 2, and Schubert’s Op.13 quartet with tutor Nathaniel Vallois. We started with the Borodin and as a group, investigated the themes which are passed around the quartet, linking them closer and closer together and ensuring that the sound is maintained.
The Schubert has a completely different feel to it and required us to leave the full Russian sounds that we had been aiming for in much of the Borodin and instead aim for the depths of despair and depression that come through in the emotional Schubert quartets. Nathaniel spoke to us about Schubert’s other quartets and chamber music. The themes of light and death are so obvious within so much of Schubert’s chamber music writing – the Op. 13 quartet is no different. Nathaniel worked on the lower parts playing the low, almost menacing, ostinato which sets up the whole feel of the piece.
This allowed us to set up the perfect bass, against which the beautiful lilting theme played by our first violinist is juxtaposed. This theme allows the piece to move towards the light and sets up the rest of the movement with the darkest emotions only allowed to appear at the right moments. Nathaniel pointed out that these moments mean that the patches of light are super bright and enables the music to take the listener on an enormous roller-coaster ride of emotions.
After the break I moved to a different group to play the Schumann Piano Quintet coached by Levon Chillingirian. Within this group we worked on playing to each other and the need for us to accompany the piano. Levon pointed out that most of the famous violin sonatas are actually written for piano and violin, and that we strings need to be careful to accompany the piano and work together to achieve this – it’s not a violin solo with piano accompaniment but a piece of chamber music! The piano quintet needed an approach very much like this. The piano part is notorious for being fiendishly difficult and challenging. One aspect of this is that the pianist needs to work hard at times to show the rest of the group who is leading.
The Schumann is one of my favourite pieces. I was amazed by how much I learnt from Levon and really enjoyed the way he brought the best out of all the players in the group, encouraging us to play to each other and pass themes around or support where necessary.