Outside it’s a dark and rainy night in Highgate. Random and forceful, the wind lashes a miserable drizzle against the Highgate Lit and Sci’s bright white rational walls and skylighted roof. Sometimes, nature just cues you in.
Initially it seems perverse for the Bochmann Quartet to sandwich Keith Burstein’s new composition between two gems of classical string assurance (Mozart’s Quartet In G, K387 and Beethoven’s Quartet In F Opus 18 No. 1). As a latterday composer, surely Burstein’s work belongs with the moderns… whoever they are in these days of “post”s and “quasi”s.
But maybe not. Burstein’s “post-atonal” compositions are far from the deconstructed chance/hazard/subjective strategy of the varied Cage and Stockhausen traditions, from the shocking trills and tangles of Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle (one British compositional generation up) or even from the complex, angry clash of his near-contemporary Mark-Anthony Turnage. Also, his passionate defense of a renewed respect for traditional tonality suggests he’s spinning back towards the arms of classical music, where the breadth of human emotion can be represented in harmonious, resolvable tone colours; and where every piece contains all the pointers to a final flourish, a final satisfying closure of emotion before the dignified applause.
Well… not quite. The actual separation is made explicit by the Bochmanns’ assured navigation of Mozart’s enlightened equations beforehand, and by their stately walkthrough of Beethoven’s forest moods afterwards: each of them eminently satisfying. It’s not just the qualities of musicianship from all four players – committed and graceful throughout. It’s the way that those familiar pieces, rich in harmony and involvement, leave a pure satisfaction in their wake. In the face of jagged modernist upheaval and playful post-modernist scatter, our educated, structured culture still prizes its rationality: the patterns of classical music run through this, reassuring us that whatever emotions we go through, all will pass to resolution. Of all compositions, string quartets (as Bochmann cellist Peter Adams reminds us) were once considered the pinnacle of composed music – that which implies an ideal for living, for feeling.
Burstein’s String Quartet No. 1 (which sports, with an antique and near-mediaeval directness, the subtitle of “Dance Of Death/Dream Of Love”) reflects this particular ideal and its associated duty far more than does the dissonance and overt chaos of modernity and post-modernity. Yet as a composer Burstein remains too honest to simply copy the balance of classical music’s ideals. Marked by different times (when ideals are less easy to envisage, let alone achieve) this string quartet is rooted in an earlier Burstein composition – ‘This Year’s Midnight”, a choral meditation on the Holocaust. It draws on the bitter nourishment of bereavement; and of the splintered confusion when the rudder of faith snaps and incomprehensible chaos seems to have moved in for good. Contained in a shell of formal behaviour and formal tonality, it illustrates disturbance with diffident, insinuating elegance.
Movement 1 (Farewell) builds out of gently interleaving, swelling tonal planes – each instrument alternating through slow arcs of intensity, circulating restlessly. An elegy, for certain, but one in which decorum and dissension mix like the conflicting undercurrents of grief at a death. Complex emotions are hauled up skittering into the open; a disagreeing family protesting mutely and piecemeal at the funeral speeches, their disagreement only in betrayed by the shifting of tense shoulders and the blur of lips. Similar in its morbid beauty to the disturbed vigil-music of Billy Strayhorn’s Blood Count, Farewell is tolled to silence by Adams’ tense cello before Burstein conjures an aspirant, wounded passage with a translucent John Taverner frugality. Launched achingly upwards, it’s kept airborne by the Bochmann Quartet’s gritted bowing: both composition and performance feeling like the heroic efforts of straining birds’ wings.
As a counterweight – a celebration of ongoing lives and commitments in the face of loss – Movement 2 (Paradiso) is a wedding dedication. Filled with serenity, lofted on a bluesy cello arpeggio, its aspirational qualities are still shaded by rich, dissenting harmonies. Here, Burstein seems to have captured the discolorations of love. He illustrates its small perversities, the need for steering, the impossibility of a pure love in a troubled world, but the sheer necessity of striving towards it.
The third movement, Animato Nervosa, seems to show the alternative – or what happens if loss and fear are allowed to overshadow life. Distracted and lonely, it suggests a neurotic correctness forever threatened by worry. The vivid spectre of collapse tugs constantly at its order and structure, the disturbance led by Adams’ increasingly aggressive cello lines. More brittle than the preceding movements, it’s also more obvious in its violence. The title is as much medical as musical – the dissension hovering in Farewell is ingrained here. It’s more personal, more destructive in the fierce shying of the melodies; and it’s here that the Bochmann Quartet show a darker mettle in the broken, conflicting string lines. As Adams delivers a final growling, twisted stab, there’s a tense pause; then Helen Roberts replies – and seals the movement – with a vicious snap of viola strings.
The fourth and final movement (Totentanz/Liebestraum) sees Burstein draw more sharply on the Jewish music in his background and on the collective bereavement which informed The Year’s Midnight. The nervous jazzy energy and cartoonish structures of Kletzmer folk music simultaneously energize the piece and seem to set it up for wreckage. In the rush of the dance, Michael Bochmann and Mark Messenger deliver bold violin strokes which grow gradually more and more frantic, almost leaping backwards onto each other’s toes. All is suddenly cut off, leaving all four musicians rocking precariously on the brink of a void. From here, the Quartet seem to be picking up pieces of music and attempting fearfully to rethread them on a sobre spine of cello. At last, love’s dream melody arrives – but as comforting as it is, it’s also shot through with trauma (not least by the return of the tolling cello from the first movement).
Burstein’s work is more tuneful and more polite than much of what we’re accustomed to from today’s abrasive, bullishly challenging concert-hall premieres. But in its mannered English way, it’s just as confrontational about the fears that beset us.