SAYING the word ‘Stradivarius’, the world’s most famous brand of violin, in some circles, will earn you gasps of awe and wonder; possibly even lust.
So how fun it was to hear Levon Chilingirian, the violin-playing namesake of the acclaimed travelling ensemble, who spent a weekend playing Beethoven and Schubert at Taunton’s Castle Hotel, earthing the other-worldliness around the Stradivari family’s legacy most-coveted with some good common sense.
“Give a good instrument to a good player, and they’ll make it sound good,” he said. “If you give a bad instrument to a bad player, they’ll make it sound bad.”
Thankfully, this quad of Levon, Dartington-trained Ronald Birks (violin), Susie Mészáros on viola, and cellist Stephen Orton, could make a rude creation of elastic bands and cardboard box a concert-worthy instrument.
That morning, the quartet presented Beethoven’s 1809 ‘String Quartet in E flat, Opus 74’, or ‘Harp’, and Schubert’s 1824 ‘String Quartet in D minor’, or ‘Death and the Maiden’ – both names admittedly rather a mouthful for anyone who doesn’t consider classical music their cup of tea.
Called the ‘Harp’ because of the harp-like plucking sounds runnning through it, Beethoven’s work is playful in its mimicry; a light and warm sound shooting down the centuries.
It sounds like an impressionist’s painting (although the music came before the art movement), all interlocking notes, the gentle boom of the cello, the resounding hum from the violin and viola.
Schubert’s morbid ‘Death and the Maiden’, meanwhile, grabbed you by your coat lapels.
It’s thought the great man wrote it while suffering with syphilis, thinking his death imminent.
And it sounds like the lament of a dying man unable to stop the inevitable, feeling he’s being taken too early; the cello’s death knoll sounding through it.
But for the chamber music ‘virgin’ – I’m a self-professed indie music lover – this cleansing 11am concert made not just for incredible listening, but viewing too.
You can’t help but grin watching the animated Levon stamping the floor as he plays; at times bouncing his chair backwards; the pleasing theatrical sweep and jolt of the players’ bowing arms; Levon solo-ing so urgently you half expect his 17th Century violin to burst into flame.
Then there’s just the sheer skill involved in translating a wash of genius score, the flat black and white of a page, into that complex, cascading sound.
With 2014 the eleventh year The Quartet has been to the Hotel, “it really feels like old friends”, says Susie Mészáros on her English-made viola.
The Castle’s owner, Kit Chapman explains: “We started this concert series in 1977, and here we are today. My job at the time was to put the hotel on the map and market it – what the hell do you do with miserable winter weekends in Somerset?”
• THE London Haydn Quartet present’s Taunton’s next chamber music concert weekend, from March 28-30, Friday to Sunday. Tickets are £24 each for morning performances, and £25 for evenings. Book on events.the-castle-hotel.com/ticketing or 01823-272671.