Review: Mercury Quartet @ Institut Français

Posted on June 6, 2012 by

29 May 2012
17 Queensberry Place, London, SW7 2DT

Vlad Maistorovici violin
Corentin Chassard cello
Harry Cameron-Penny clarinet
Antoine Francoise piano
Hannah Grayson flutes
Serge Vuille vibraphone
Robin Green conductor

The Mercury Quartet are an emerging group of young performers who have already built up a formidable reputation, and were the first winners of the Nonclassical label’s ‘Battle of the Bands’. 

Tuesday’s programme featured three very different but very connected French composers. Both Pierre Boulez and Gérard Grisey studied under Olivier Messiaen, all three of the composers were actively involved with the Darmstadt summer school and Grisey was actively supported by Boulez in the early days of IRCAM.

The Institut’s concert hall is something of a novelty; one enters the building through what one would assume to be a side door on any other building, and the room in which the concert is being held is in fact a revamped cinema, making for a comfortable and cosy evening.

The Mercury Quartet played with a sophistication and maturity that belied their relatively young age; the six chords that make up the surprisingly accessible Dérive 1 (derived from Repons, an earlier and perhaps more esoteric piece) by Boulez were played with exceptional clarity. Conductor Robin Green was completely in charge of the tempi throughout and the quartet (plus vibraphone and flute) passed the notes round the ensemble superbly, ensuring an ever-changing texture.

This served them well during Grisey’s Talea, which involved a myriad of multiphonics, microtones and quick instrument changes by the woodwinds. The ensemble, this time minus the vibraphone, seemed to bring out well the two distinct sections of the piece, and the extremely complicated extended techniques required on all instruments were played with ease in a way that served the piece’s call for varied texture and timbre.

It was interesting then to hear how the quartet coped with Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps written and performed in a POW camp during WWII. Messiaen was a highly distinctive composer whose music can sometimes be profoundly different between movements. This did not seem to be a problem for the players from the ice-cold harmonics, birdsong and Indian Deci-Tala rhythms in the first movement, to the delicate, contemplative and eternal-sounding fifth and seventh movements. It was, however, the third movement that stole the show. Written for solo clarinet, Harry Cameron-Penny demonstrated a deep understanding of the music, from it’s free-flowing birdsong to the wide range of dynamics. His tone could jump from being unblemished, like a sine wave or Ondes Martenot, to the raucous and deeply penetrating.

This was the last in the current series of concerts by the Institut Français presenting a timeline through great French music. All credit to the organisers for imaginatively programming music rarely heard in London alongside a better known work, and for showcasing an ensemble of the very highest quality.

Robert Edgar

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