The Menton Music Festival, in its seventieth season, is famous as a prestigious showcase for the stars of the classical music world. But while the audience applauds the celebrity performers outside the baroque basilica of Saint-Michel-Archange, another select group of artists, less flamboyant but every bit as serious, is heard in a serious of concerts held in a second venue: the Salon de Grande Bretagne of the Palais de l’Europe. Artists such as Alexandre Melnikov, Lisa de la Salle and Sylvain Blassel are presented in this more intimate setting, allowing for close contact with their appreciative listeners.
On the evenings of 29 July and 1 August, the Allegri String Quartet enchanted their public with two programs, each pairing quartets by Haydn and Beethoven. The first evening featured Haydn’s “Apponyi” Quartet in D major, Op 71 No 2 and the first of Beethoven’s late quartets, in E-flat major, Op 127. The second concert opened with Haydn’s Quartet in C major, Op 54 No 2, and concluded with Beethoven’s monumental Quartet in c-sharp minor, Op 131.
Founded in 1953 by violinist Eli Goren and cellist William Pleeth, the Allegri Quartet is Britain’s longest-running chamber ensemble. This rich history has bestowed upon the group a wonderfully homogenous and mellow sonority, as well as a remarkable consistency in their interpretative approach. Like all great string quartets, the Allegri are able to seamlessly shift between playing as four soloists, each with their own style, and as a unified ensemble. The burnished dark sound of the quartet is in part due to the fact that the phrasing often seems to be led from the bottom up. The most extraverted player is the cellist, Vanessa Lucas-Smith, whose ebullient punctuation was an endless source of delight. Violist Dorothea Vogel was also astonishingly expressive, particularly in the variations of Beethoven’s Op. 131. In comparison, violinists Martyn Jackson and Rafael Todes were more reserved, but no less impressive, engaged in a continual musical conversation with their partners.
The Allegri made the most of the contrasts between poignancy and humour in the two Haydn quartets, among the composer’s most famous. The Quartet in C major, Op 54 No 2 was particularly memorable, especially for violinist Martyn Jackson’s rhapsodic playing in the slow movement, which came across as an almost gypsy-like improvisation. The high point of the concerts was the ensemble’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Op. 131. The impeccable choice of tempi and intense sense of forward momentum allowed the organic unity of this composition to come to the fore; the seven interconnected movements sounding as a unified artistic statement.
It is rare to hear such first-rate chamber music ensembles on the Côte d’Azur. The large and enthusiastic audience in the Palais de l’Europe proved that the diverse and thoughtful programming of the Menton Music Festival is a resource to be cherished.