Notos Quartett’s Oxford Debut

Notos Quartett is a multi-award-winning piano quartet made up of Sindri Lederer (violin), Andrea Burger (viola), Philip Graham (cello) and Antonia Köster (piano). The ensemble is known internationally for their intense musicality and chemistry, creating a sense of one instrumental body, rather than a group of separate parts. This notoriety led to them winning the 32nd Würth-Prize of Jeunesses Musicales Germany (2022) and 6 more competitions in the UK, the Netherlands, Italy and China.

On Thursday 9 November, Notos Quartett experienced their Oxford debut, at St. John the Evangelist Church, a non-parochial venue that has been used to host SJE Arts Oxford events since 2021. Displaying their youthful energy, the programme highlighted early works from renowned composers, such as Gustav Mahler’s Piano Quartet in A minor, which he wrote either age 15 or 16, William Walton’s Piano Quartet, which he initially wrote age 16 and Johannes Brahm’s Piano Quartet No.2 in A, op. 26, which he wrote slightly later, age 28.

St. John the Evangelist is a beautiful, Grade I listed building, set in stone with a warm wooden ceiling. However, it sonically took a little time to settle into, slightly affecting the Mahler, but stylistically broadening the Walton and Brahms with its strange mix of acoustic muffling and reverb. Nevertheless, the building’s grandeur emphasised the sacred reminiscent atmosphere of the overall performance.

Starting with a cavernous, melancholic piano line, Mahler’s Piano Quartet began the performance with a sombre and heavily lyrical atmosphere, that grew into a pulled-back, longing ambience. With only one existing movement, this piano quartet was the perfect starter into understanding the ensemble’s chemistry, with a sense of togetherness being held over everything else in the performance. Mahler’s Piano Quartet is the only remaining movement from his 1876 summer compositions, the rest of his student works were apparently destroyed by himself. This movement compellingly represents Mahler’s student career, with the piece thoroughly following the preconceived sonata form, however there are heavy foreshadows of his later intense and epic style.

The highlight of Notos Quartett’s performance was Walton’s Piano Quartet, which was affectionately introduced by the ensemble’s cellist, Phillip Graham. William Walton wrote this piece whilst studying at Christ Church College, Oxford where he became an undergraduate and chorister aged 16. Although he withdrew many of his student era pieces after leaving Oxford without his degree and moving to Italy, it was clear that he thought highly of his Piano Quartet, with the only copy being sent to him by post from England to Italy, subsequently getting lost and resurfacing after two years. He revisited the Piano Quartet often, revising it several times between 1921-1975. Graham stated how important it was for their ensemble to play a piece written in Oxford by a young composer during the quartet’s debut in the city.

The Piano Quartet is made up of the typical four movements, reminiscent of the traditional form, however it strays thematically towards a newer, more innovative style. If it wasn’t already obvious from the Mahler that Notos Quartett has a kinetic chemistry where each instrumentalist truly communicates and listens to one other, the start of Walton’s Allegremente movement proved this. The swirling, whirlwind of sequences vibrated throughout the venue, making the quieter moments all the more lyrical and sweeter. During instances of homophony, every instrument felt part of one large instrument, reverberating through the building, further showcasing the ensemble’s connection. This piece is heavily reminiscent of English folk song and Romanticism, falling into similar vanes of Vaughn Williams and Elgar’s Nationalism and Ravel’s Impressionism, whilst also taking influences from Stravinsky and Bartók’s neo-folk sounds. The second Allegro scherzo movement started with sudden block homophonic collé, intercepted with rapid piano runs, creating images of a windy British landscape. The stormy atmosphere was only heightened during canonised sequential buildups, starting in the cello, and ending in the piano, which begins a heroic, pastoral atmosphere of rolling hills and height, each instrument acting as a different wisp of wind.

Andante tranquillo is the piece’s third slow movement, establishing a lush, still moment after the turbulent second movement. The cello is given this beautiful, soaring melody that broadens the instrument’s capacity and brought the audience into a reverent silence and gave me chills. A favourite part of the whole performance is when the violin is given a long, sustained high open harmonic, which reverberated across the whole venue, forcing the audience to intently listen. Breaking the music out of its calm and peaceful dream, Allegro Molto, the fourth and final movement of Walton’s Piano Quartet starts with a scalic piano whip and Psycho adjacent block string chords, adding to the ever-changing nature of this piece. With moments of quiet, wandering lines, this movement is packed with loud and angry textures, really stretching the venues sonic versatility. The piece ended with an extraordinary bang of all the instruments playing intensely and together, leading the programme into the interval.

Brahms’ Piano Quartet no.2 in A, op. 26 introduces the audience to Notos Quartett’s great admiration for the composer, with them previously releasing a recording of his Piano Quartet No.1 in G minor in 2021. After the interval, the piece brings the programme to a more traditional Romantic atmosphere, much less stormy than the Walton, but still extravagant and rich. The first movement, Allegro non troppo presents gliding strings against an equally graceful flowing piano, with both sets constantly conversing and meandering between each other. The second, Poco adagio slow movement was lullaby-esque at first, lulling the audience into a calming dream-like state. This was slowly intercepted by fast, wave-like, pre-Impressionist passages in the piano, causing tonal ambiguity, shaking the calm atmosphere. However, this gradually grew into a beautiful, soaring violin passage, mirrored in the viola. The third Scherzo movement greatly complemented the Walton, beginning with pentatonic movements, similar to that of the Impressionist and British Nationalism musical movements that were still yet to come. However, this slowly faded back into traditional Romantic harmonic codes, whilst still repeating the initial movement throughout. The Finale: Allegro movement again changed tone to finish the programme, being a lot more atmospherically cheerful and almost child-like, with dancing rhythms and repeated, simple scalic passages.

Notos Quartett certainly lives up to their grand reputation, with chemistry and sonic communication being at the heart of their performance, as well as a complete love and respect for the pieces they play. This concert was part of Music at Oxford’s 40th anniversary series, which dedicates space to a wide range of artists, whilst also celebrating the management’s long history of honouring and promoting the arts in Oxford.