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Enthralled with the Marmen

Bear with me for an apparent diversion. During interval, after listening to a sublime Mozart, and the boldly contrasting Takemitsu, my son made an intriguing observation. The four musicians of the Marmen Quartet, he said, made him think of a fungus he’d read about, which is irresistible to ants – but once eaten, takes over their brains to make them high-functioning servants of the organism, all their energies consumed by the appetite of the fungus to spread itself via willing agents of its urge to survive.
Mulling this over in the second half, I thought it made complete sense. These players were consumed by what they played, in thrall to something more powerful than them. And what an uncompromising, awe-inspiring mastery it was exerting over them.
Let this not give you the impression they played like automata… quite the opposite. The emotional engagement of each player was almost a naked reveal of the composer’s feelings as he shaped his sounds, unveiling the impulses that drove each passage. Tender in the Mozart, unsettled in the Takemitsu and inflamed by passion in Beethoven’s Rasumovsky. I was worried that the cellist might dance from her perch with the unselfconsious force that drove her, or the First Violin’s virtuosic energy dismantle the ingenious setup of stacked chairs he needed to raise his seat.
No such crisis occurred. But their courage and intensity are what help to explain the Marmen Quartet’s meteoric rise since they came together as students in the Royal College of Music in 2013, winning First Prizes at both the Bordeaux and Banff International String Quartet Competition, and another First Prize at the Royal Overseas League Competition (besides many more awards). Their performances have graced the Wigmore Hall, Berlin Philharmonie, Boulez Saal, Frankfurt Alte Oper… I could go on. This young group of musicians clearly have a stellar career.
As I mentioned, the programme began with Mozart; his enchanting String Quartet in Eb major, K428. The overriding impression was of a heartfelt and enthusiastic conversation amongst friends close enough to finish each others’ sentences while never jostling to predominate. The first movement showcased this quality, in the way the cellist brought the voice in the lowest register so vividly to life.
I’ve seldom been as moved by a piece as the second movement. I felt as though in that moment, that space, they created the atmospheric mix we required for life. Their uncensored narrative, especially in the heart-twisting empathy of the first violin, was as exquisitely painful as first love, and as riveting. Each voice is distinct, with a confidence that theirs is the most significant message to convey … and yet the whole is so much more than the sum of parts. Hearing the dissonances slide over one another was as tangible as the stroke of skin on skin. I sensed the audience hesitate to breathe, the suspended disbelief before a first kiss. It feels as though they share a pathological need to tell the truth – whispered or shouted, no constraints appear possible within this tribe.
Emotional then, certainly, with a lot of elastic in the interpretation; but the absolute precision that knits them together suggests a practice regime of almost military discipline.
The final Allegro was a joyful gallop that lost none of its fluency in the breakneck pace; the first violin dashing out with the pack at his heels, then the cello pulled to the fore, all carried together with a mix of relish and mutual trust.
The self-taught Japanese composer, Taku Takemitsu, was a daring choice to follow Mozart; but by now we’d expect no less from the Marmen. Swirling, achromatic, it swooped and shivered, and
prevented us from becoming too comfortable with simple bliss-inducing beauty. I’d never heard it, but I could see how it seasoned the mix.
After an interval in which I noted a lot of energetic musical discussions taking place, we were braced for the red meat of the evening: Beethoven’s String Quartet no. 8 in E minor, op..59 no. 2: ‘Rasumovsky’. It is the gift of Beethoven to engage – command! – our attention with his utter conviction. There is no other way, for him, or for us. Or so it feels. (We’ve all sampled the fungus!)
The musicians seem to embody this as a kind of lyrical perfectionism, a ‘fugue state’ which compels and directs them to act as one; neither they nor we can detach, music makers and followers, equally hypnotised by the mesmerising voice. When a movement ceases, it feels like a betrayal… how could you leave us here so unsatisfied?
The third movement, Allegretto, sounded like a tender discussion between instruments, exchanging lilting phrases of mutual goodwill and encouragement before some momentous occasion. The second violin carried the tune with sincerity, was answered eagerly by the other instruments, converging into lyrical momentum that swept us unresisting onwards.
Too soon the apex towards which the Rasumovsky had been building had arrived. We knew the Presto was the last movement of a legendary evening, and there was a hunger in the way the audience sat forward, as though to absorb the very last nuance of an unrepeatable evening.
There should have been a warning to hang onto our hats . If the notes had been visible in the air, we would have found ourselves in a veritable Storm Ciaran of sound. The command which these four musicians exerted over the darting, tearaway phrases was only matched by the uninhibited gusto with which they channeled them (the viola deserves a special mention here). They fling themselves into the daunting maelstrom that Beethoven has been cooking up for them with a fearlessness that would be unhinged if they could not rely 110% on one another, on picking up and transmitting those imperceptible signals which at that speed can only operate instinctively. It was a performance of heart-stopping terror and magnificence, and speaks of levels of virtuosity and originality I’ve not heard in St James since Quatuor Ebene performed there as part of 2010’s Victor Hugo festival.
As one of the sponsors mentioned to me regretfully afterwards, ‘I doubt we’ll be able to afford them again’ – ah, but all in St James that night will never forget them.
Thanks once again to the Swallow Trust, whose generosity made this exceptional concert possible.


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