Nicholas Yonge Society

International Chamber Music in Lewes

Leonkoro String Quartet

20th October 2023
Schubert String Quartet No. 9 in G minor, D173
Janáček String Quartet No. 1  'The Kreutzer Sonata'
Brahms String Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 51 No. 1

The Leonkoro Quartet from Berlin won First Prize in the Wigmore Hall’s competition last year, and we had the honour to be one of the venues included in their prize-winner’s tour. Well done to Artistic Director Chris Darwin to snap them up and start the Nicholas Yonge season so brilliantly. Brothers Jonathan and Lukas Schwarz had the outer positions on the platform, with second violin Amelie Wallner and violist Mayu Konoe in between, all except the cellist playing standing up. They played from printed parts rather than electronic gadgets.

A near capacity audience was treated to three wildly different works. Schubert’s Quartet 9 in G minor is a rarity despite being Schubert, as it’s a work of his teens and his later more famous works are those nearly always programmed. The youthful Leonkoro Quartet, though considerably older than the composer when he wrote the piece, could and did supply all the ‘brio’ that he wanted for the first movement, and they played the final two movements con brio too, perfectly appropriate. To the second movement by contrast they brought great tenderness and lightness of touch.

Both of ​​Janáček’s only two quartets have stories attached, as Chris’s programme note explains, but one can ignore the baggage and concentrate on the extraordinary music. The first three movements, as played, successfully led up to the fourth, but one doesn’t have to have Tolstoy’s narrative in mind. ‘Con moto’ is demanded in all four movements and the players certainly supplied it, making as sharp contrasts with the slower sections as the composer surely wanted. Contrasts was my dominant impression of their approach as a whole. The sul ponticello passages could not have been more scratchy, the dramatic passages more dramatic.

Janáček’s quartet could be followed only by the interval, and the interval only by Brahms. Opus 51, no. 1, to me about the most lyrical quartet in the repertoire, is almost popular: when I asked an Amazon Echo speaker to play it the device launched immediately into the second movement, describing it as jointly by Johannes Brahms and the Amadeus Quartet. The Leonkoro Quartet could hardly, and wouldn’t wish to, match the smoothness of the Amadeus Quartet, but their respect for Brahms’s rhythmic complexities was greater. As is essential for this work in particular, all four players could make their instruments sing. The two middle voices have many passages where one or other of them leads, and we heard lovely tone from the viola in its middle register, as well as, from the second violin, the magical passage in the third movement where the player alternates the same note on open and stopped adjacent strings. Nothing was improvisatory here. Although Brahms revised and revised and tried out version after version, every note from the Leonkoro Quartet seemed to lead inexorably to the next.

The group gave us a (prefigured) encore, a Fantasia by Henry Purcell, originally for viols, but perfectly good for a modern string quartet, or for this modern string quartet in particular. The Leonkoros were keen to sell us their one CD, and we are an elderly enough audience for that to be a good bet. What a shame though that the young now hardly listen to CDs, I am told, not even owning a CD player, and thus own no recordings but rely instead on more licences to listen, hardly to be counted on beyond the short term.

Review​er: Charles Goldie

Photograp​her: David James