Opening concert of CLASSICAL ENCOUNTERS at Nieuwe Kerk in The Hague

The majestic and imposing Nieuwe Kerk in the heart of The Hague is the main venue for this year’s Classical Encounters festival. The Dutch love their chamber music and they love their festivals and Classical Encounters (formerly The Hague international Chamber Music Festival) is only one of half a dozen or more that take place in or around the city throughout the year.

For this year’s festival, artistic director Eva Stegeman has put together a rich and varied programme on the, perhaps unlikely, theme of death under the title Music Never Dies. So what better way to start than with one of the greatest compositions in the chamber music canon, Schubert’s wonderful Quartet No.14 in D-minor Der Tod und das Mädchen, Death and the Maiden.

Written in 1824 to perhaps assuage or confront his own imminent death, Schubert’s piece, as one can quite understand, is full of mood swings – sometimes sad, sometimes pensive and sometimes angry. All these changes were exquisitely expressed by the quartet consisting of Gordon Nikolic and Eva Stegeman on violins, Hannah Stribos on viola and Ursula Smith on cello. They were all excellent but I was particularly impressed by the subtlety and sensitivity of Mr Nikolic on first violin. This was an outstanding performance, enhanced by the atmosphere and fine acoustics of the Nieuwe Kerk.

For the second half, Pieter van Loenen took over on first violin and Sietse-Jan Weijenberg replaced Ms Smith on cello to perform Leoš Janáček’s  String Quartet No.1 Kreutzersonate – not to be confused with the Beethoven piece of the same name. Leo Tolstoy had been inspired to write his novella The Kreutzer Sonata by the Beethoven composition and it was from this story that Janáček took his inspiration.

However, just as the quartet was about to start, they were rudely interrupted by a member of the audience who stood up and announced he had murdered his wife. Well, as you can imagine, that raised a few eyebrows and involved a bit of uneasy fidgeting. This was compounded when the man took his chair and put it on the stage next to the musician and launched in a tirade about, well . . . carnal desire and jealousy.

By this time it had become clear, to most of us anyway, that this was in fact an actor, Ian Bok, and this was all part of the show. It worked well as a concept, to have each movement of the quartet punctuated by Mr Bok relating the story of Pozdnyshev and his dirty deed. However, there was rather more text than music so that the impression was that it was the text that had been set to music and not the text augmenting the composition. The music became a little too fragmented. Also, although the acoustics in the Kerk are excellent for music, they are not so good for an un-microphoned speaking voice and consequently it was sometimes a bit hard to hear. But, apart from that this was a novel and entertaining performance which got the Festival off to a wonderful start.  Michael Hasted   9th May 2019