theartsdesk, May 2015

Classical CDs Weekly: The Revolutionary Drawing Room

     This is a well-organised double CD: four classical string quartets played on gut strings, linked by spoken extracts from the name-dropping memoirs of one Michael Kelly, a Dublin-born tenor who forged a successful European career in the late 18th century. [Putting] quartets by Haydn and Mozart alongside lesser examples by Vanhal and Dittersdorf serves to highlight the difference between skilled fluency and genius. Vanhal's 1786 Quartet in E Flat is proficient, entertaining and entirely forgettable. Unlike the first of Haydn's Op. 50 set, where the repeated cello notes at the outset sound as if someone's abruptly turned the volume up half way through the opening phrase. We're used to being shocked and delighted by Haydn's symphonies, but the string quartets can also surprise. This one's finale has a very typical false ending; you get up to make a cup of coffee and the music suddenly carries on. It's genuinely funny, not irritating, and the Revolutionary Drawing Room's unexaggerated, affectionate performance is a joy.

     As is a spry reading of Mozart's K465, nicknamed "The Dissonance", the chromatic introduction deeply unsettling. As with the Haydn, you never quite know what's coming next. Dittersdorf's 6th Quartet can't compare, despite an energetic, catchy last movement. But you can't imagine the piece being better performed – still, I'd rather hear a complete Haydn or Mozart recital from these players. Each work is separated by a chunk of Michael Kelly's Reminiscences. Kelly pitched up in Vienna 1783 at the start of his successful career. We hear about his journey from Dublin to Naples. There’s a meeting with Haydn, and he gets beaten at billiards by Mozart. Fascinating stuff. But why do we get the quintessentially English Simon Russell Beale reading the texts? He does a splendid job, but wouldn't an Irish actor [have] been more appropriate?

- Graham Rickson