Session Report: Looking to the future

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Tim Homfray speaks to members of the Navarra Quartet, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year and recently welcomed two new players, about recording chamber works by Edward Gregson

The Navarra Quartet celebrates its 20th birthday this year. The players first got together as students at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) in Manchester and have gone on to have an illustrious career, taking in a clutch of competition wins and a Borletti-Buitoni Trust fellowship along the way.

Right at the start they were encouraged by the then principal of the RNCM, English composer Edward Gregson. ‘He was always very loyal to the quartets there,’ says the Navarra’s cellist, Brian O’Kane. Now the ensemble has repaid that support with a recording for Naxos of Gregson’s two string quartets and a selection of his other chamber music.

Gregson (b.1945) is a prolific composer (the brass world in particular has benefited greatly), but it was only in 2014 that he produced his first string quartet. He remembered the Navarra Quartet as an outstanding group, ‘so it seemed natural for me to want to write my first quartet especially for them’, he writes in his programme note; and he invited them to give the world premiere at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, in January 2015. In 2017, as composer-in-residence at the Presteigne Festival, he produced his second work in the genre, which was premiered by the Nightingale Quartet.

The First Quartet has three movements, of which the first (marked Dramatically – Fast, with energy – Expressively) is variously dark and gritty (with intense counterpoint), light and melodic and intensely rhythmic. The central movement, ‘Fantasia on a Chorale’, looks back to the English string music of the 16th and 17th centuries and is alternately calm and dramatic, with touches of Bartók, before the vehement energy of the finale. The Second Quartet is a one-movement work, cast in five sections with sicilianas at the beginning and end, which moves through musically and emotionally complex landscapes.

The challenges presented by the two quartets are quite different, according to Bartosz Woroch, second violinist of the Navarra Quartet. ‘The first one is very structured, almost like a homage to the history of string quartet writing. It is quite strict, precise. It is clear what you have to do. The second is in a sort of fantasy form. I find it more challenging. It is much shorter than the first one, but with the sheer size of its one movement you have to absorb much more information at once. There is also much more freedom. If you give freedom to four people you can get into trouble! You have a lot of decisions to make, whereas in the first quartet a lot of the decisions are made for you. The challenge is not so much technical as about interpretation. But it’s very rewarding to play, once one gets over the hurdles.’..

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