Friday, March 08, 2024

Stephen Hough and the Castalian Quartet

The invaluable San Francisco Performances presented British pianist/composer/writer/polymath Stephen Hough with the London-based Castalian Quartet on Tuesday at Herbst Theater. It was a weirdly disappointing concert. (Pictured are Hough and cellist Steffan Morris.)
Originally scheduled for separate concerts last November, Hough and the London-based string quartet both had to cancel and they somehow decided to join forces for a short tour of California and New York. The program was similar to the last time I saw Hough when he joined the Takács Quartet in Berkeley (click here). Two years ago, the performance started with a Haydn string quartet, followed by the world premiere of Hough's own String Quartet #1, and finished with Dvorak's Piano Quintet No. 2. Tuesday's performance started with a Haydn string quartet (F Minor, Opus 20, No. 5), followed by Hough's String Quartet #1 again, and finished with Brahms's Piano Quintet in F Minor, Opus 34.
The big problem in Tuesday's performance was that the first violinist was having intonation problems all evening, and the occasional sour notes were impossible to hide in Haydn's transparent music. It was nice to experience Hough's string quartet again, and the neo-Poulenc set of six French souvenirs holds up well on a second hearing.
Hough joined the quartet for the Brahms piano quintet, and his impeccable musicianship seemed on a different wavelength than the quartet who opted for aggressiveness rather than a pretty sound. By the final movement, Hough seemed to give up and just join the fray, pounding his poor instrument in a way I've never seen from him before.


Lisa Hirsch said...

I reviewed the Castalian about a year ago and loved them - surprised to hear about the first violinist's intonation problems as there were no signs of it then. It's possible to perform an aggressive, but good, Brahms quintet; sorry that this didn't work out.

Someone else I know who went thought that positioning one's work between Haydn and Brahms is very risky, which is to say, I think he didn't like the Hough.

Civic Center said...

Dear Lisa:

Maybe she was just having an off night on a mis-tuned violin, but I asked around at intermission to see if I was the only one hearing it and the observation was confirmed by about half a dozen people. The Hough is perfectly pleasant and gets better as it goes along. And I was being polite with the term "aggressiveness" since the performance occasionally sounded like a bit of a train wreck to me.