The Navarra Quartet:

“You have to find your own voice”


© Aart van der Wal, December 2010

Also published by MusicWeb International


In 2008 the Navarra Quartet won the Outstanding Young Artist Award at the MIDEM Classique Awards in Cannes. They were selected for representation by Young Concert Artists Trust in 2006 and in 2007 received a Borletti-Buitoni Trust Fellowship culminating in a highly acclaimed disc of Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross.

Formed in 2002 at the Royal Northern College of Music under the guidance of the late Dr Christopher Rowland and Alasdair Tait, and latterly as postgraduate students of the Alban Berg Quartet in Cologne, they are now Quartet in Association at the RNCM. In 2007 the Quartet won second  prize at the Melbourne International Competition and in 2005 1st Prize in the Florence International Competition. 

At the opening  of the 2009/10 season the Quartet returned to Australia to give recitals in Melbourne, Sydney and the Huntingdon Estate Music Festival under the auspices of Musica Viva. They went on to appear at Wigmore Hall, Bath Festival and Aldeburgh, and gave recitals in France (as Laureates of the Aix-en-Provence Festival), Switzerland, Italy, Ireland and the Netherlands. In 2010 the Quartet recorded their first CD for Challenge Records of Peteris Vasks’s string quartets and took part in the BBC Proms Chamber music series at Cadogan Hall with pianist Francesco Piemontesi. Future engagements include return visits to Wigmore Hall and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.

Over the last  two years the Quartet has  increasingly  developed their international  profile, appearing  at major festivals  and venues throughout Europe including  the Philharmonie in Luxembourg, the Konzerthaus in Berlin, the Schwetzinger, Rheingau and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern Festivals in Germany, the Aix-en-Provence and Bellerive Festivals and the Kattegat and Sandviken Festivals in Sweden. Further afield they have given concerts in Russia, the USA and Bahrain.

In 2009 they took part in the Haydn series at Wigmore Hall (broadcast by BBC Radio 3) and recorded Haydn’s 7 Last Words on the Cross for Altara Records for which they commissioned nine paintings for illustrated performances from the world-renowned artist Jamie Boyd. They also worked with Wayne MacGregor’s Random Dance Company on a new work (Entity) with music by Joby Talbot giving a series of performances at Sadler’s Wells, Snape Maltings and the Muziektheater in Amsterdam.

The Quartet has collaborated with the Elias, Australian, Heath and Sacconi Quartets, Li-Wei, Matthew Barley, Richard Harwood, Guy Johnston, Hansjörg Schellenberger, Jiri Hudec, Julius Drake, Allan Clayton, Patricia Bardon, John O’Conor and Alasdair Tait. They have taken part in the International Musicians Seminar at Prussia Cove and in 2008 were resident Quartet at the Britten-Pears School in Aldeburgh and at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland. The Quartet has broadcast for BBC Radio 3, RAI 3 (Italy), Radio 4 (Holland), SWR (Germany), Radio Luxembourg and ABC Classic FM (Australia).

Source: Navarra Quartet

I met the four members (Magnus Johnston and Marije Ploemacher, violin; Simone van der Giessen, viola; Nathaniel Boyd, cello) on Tuesday morning, 16 November, at the BIM House in Amsterdam, when they were preparing for the TV broadcast of VPRO’s ‘Vrije Geluiden’. They would perform the third movement (Adagio) from Peteris Vasks’s String Quartet No 3 (1995).

Chamber music, with the string quartet in its epicentre, typically offers the very best of the creative output of any composer. Foremost, it may enable us to witness his deepest thoughts and emotions. Compared to a string quartet an orchestral work, irrespective of its beauty and impact, may even sound crude, with far less gradation. Susan Tomes, the pianist of the Florestan Trio (they record for the Hyperion label) wrote that many composers used chamber music to give us the truest portraits of themselves, their most intimate thoughts and feelings. There is no multiplication of means and effects, which sometimes makes orchestral music seem coarse. Instead, there is that wonderful conversation between people with meaningful things to say. With one person on each part, everyone is vital, and each player influences the others in an unpredictable way. Playing chamber music is like digesting life in the company of a newly acquired family. It seems to be in that perfect if not ideal periphery of the great orchestral hemisphere, where each and every string is magically touched and where merely four individuals create all those many delicacies just to be sipped and savoured by their audiences. No wonder that we may find most connoisseurs in the field of chamber music!

The Navarra Quartet
(From left to right: Magnus Johnston, Marije Ploemacher, Simone van der Giessen and Nathaniel Boyd)

Any string quartet or any musical group for that matter must work closely together as a real team to keep clear of common oddities and pitfalls, but maybe first and foremost each and every player should have the open mind and attitude that is needed to resolve interpretative problems when rehearsing together. On stage it all comes down to strong emotional involvement in perfect balance with one another, ranging from immaculate phrasing to finely shaded dynamics. No wonder really that on their latest CD (Challenge Classics CC72365) the Navarra Quartet play the three string quartets by the Latvian composer Peteris Vasks (b. 1946) with such compassion and inner beauty that the dark music can really gradually emerge from its abysmal depths, where a culture seems to dwell on the threshold of evaporation. These bold performances deliver a strongly poetic and dramatic pulse, at the same time underlining the beautiful organic qualities of these works. After hearing their magnificent recording I don’t need to be convinced that the Navarra’s almost telescopic resources would make them ideal advocates of contemporary music. And when you would still need another confirmation? Just go to their live recording on the Sonimage label of Ravel’s String Quartet and Shostakovich’ String Quartet No 5.

Sandwich formula

It was not a slip of the tongue when I told them that there were so many great string quartet ensembles already and that conceivably prominent adventurous programming of contemporary music should be in their cards. Unless they would think that performing new music is (still?) some kind of a luxury. Would they agree? The cellist, Nathaniel Boyd, delivers a fairly politically tuned answer: “We think that the great classical works are still very relevant today, as they always have been and will be. But we definitely would like to achieve a good balance between the classic, romantic and today’s composers. Apart from that, modern music must be performed with equal passion and determination as so-called ‘old’ music.”

That would, one way or the other, work out as the sandwich formula which we encounter in so many concert programmes? ‘Old’ and ‘new’ in the same programme, with the modern or contemporary work ‘sandwiched’ between the classics? “Yes! That’s the best way to introduce new music to an audience. Let’s face it, we still meet a lot of scepticism when it comes to modern music, not to speak of really new compositions.”

  Peteris Vasks


How did they get to Vasks? “Actually, it was Challenge, our record label, which led us to his music a few years ago. We all found it fantastic music, and when we got deeper into it we became even more amazed. We really loved to do the string quartets, apart from other works we heard. I, for myself, was very impressed by a cello piece he had composed.”

Would they call it difficult music to play? At my first acquaintance with Vasks’s string quartets I found them pretty easy on the ear, at least more accessible compared to for instance Ligeti’s string quartets, despite Vasks’s clear preference for audacious multi-layers. The four quartet members gave me some laughter as a reward for my apparently less appropriate remark. Nathaniel again: “Well…to call it easy on the ear…You might be an exception (laughter again), although we can agree that his idiom is more easy to get to than of other composers. But when you really dig into Vasks’s music you will find more and more complexities waiting for you. This makes his music so rewarding!”

Is Vasks’s music also quite emotional? I would say that in most of his works one can hear the kind of pessimistic native folklore that is part of Latvian history which has been dominated so long by Russian oppression, the subsequent loss of human prosperity and dignity, adding to that the partial destruction of the environment and animal habitat by heavy industry. Simone van der Giessen: “That’s why his music goes to the bottom of our hearts. We are from another generation but we just feel what has happened.”

It is obvious that this music contains more than one message, but is it strong enough to have a whole concert programme for itself? Nathaniel: “Yes, but we don’t do that. The plan for the future is to program the quartets for different concerts. We have to take into account various issues here, and the least thing we would like to do is to overload the public. By the way, this is not only the case with Vasks, or just modern composers, but also with many others from ancient times. You really need to balance a programme, which is far less easy than people might think.”

Dreadfully self-conscious...

You may also say that great music becomes even greater when it is programmed in a sensible, not to say creative way. Even new music does not come from nothing, from a black hole so to speak. Each and every new piece is somehow embedded in musical history, one of the most incredible sources of human expression. Nathaniel: “All art is about expressing yourself, no matter if you are a composer, a painter, a writer or a performer. No one can do that artificially, by trying to be perfectly new. When doing so you simply kill the art. That’s why I feel that so much contemporary art is so much rubbish, with the artists being so dreadfully self-conscious that really no one can believe in it. They lost the intrinsic value of expression all the way down. Let’s be frank about it, all the emotions we experience are not new, they are of all times, and a composer should not ‘steer’ these in a calculated way. If he would? They would work out to be anti-musical gestures, which are absolutely worthless.”

Let’s just agree that music should come from the heart, but at the same time we should not make it too simple as a statement. No matter how far or how deep the emotions go, any good composer knows they need to be controlled in a structured way. One might even say that these emotions must be properly channelled in order to get to their destination. Composing by heart and by mind also means that the composer will always reach for the optimum effect. That also means structure and form, most often on an almost molecular level, greatly scaled and highly detailed. To put it in a nutshell: good music needs calculation. Nathaniel: “Absolutely, I couldn’t agree more, although maybe some composers can do without it, but not without skill because then it would appear to be a lost battle after all.”

How important is innovation in the creative arts, and particularly in music? Nathaniel: “The main question is where we should emphasise on? On innovation or on sincerity of expression? Or both?” I gave him my answer: on both.

Haydn and graphics

I wanted to know why the Navarra’s recording on the Altara label was music by Haydn, the Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross. Marije Ploemacher: “We very much liked the idea of not only recording this work but also in conjunction with the CD booklet reproducing Jamie Boyd’s highly dramatic paintings. I believe it worked out be a feast for the ears and the eyes. Even more so, we gave concert performances of this great work, whereas Jamie exhibited some of these paintings at the occasion. For instance, as it was done at the City of London Festival in St Stephen Walbrook, a small Anglican Parish church in London.”

Talking about graphics, I recalled my interview with the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and the South African graphic artist Robin Rhode, who worked together in a project called Pictures Reframed. Modest Mussorgsky’s (1839-1881) piano suite   Pictures at an Exhibition, based on paintings by Viktor Hartmann   (1834-1873), was at the heart of this venture, with Andsnes performing the music on stage, with Rhode’s video graphics projected at the same time onto a specially designed stage set. Although two quite different projects, they both shared the same principle of the ear that meets the eye (or the eye meeting the ear). All the senses are activated, with the aural spectrum reaching to visionary dimensions…literally! Marije: “We loved the idea of bringing this music and the painted images together, and not particularly from the standpoint of religion. But apart from that, Haydn wrote incredibly inspired music, which is actually a privilege to explore. Simone: “His music brings great rewards, to all of us, but also to our audiences. And finally, we get so much in return!”

Where to go?

As said before, there are so many recordings already of the string quartets by the great classic Viennese composers. Nowadays, especially young string quartet ensembles have turned to them, but also to chamber music of the romantic area; and to the quartets by Ravel and Debussy. Just to drop a few names: the Artemis, Belcea, Casals, Ébène, Zehetmair, Matangi, Prazák, Jerusalem and London Haydn Quartets. What could the Navarra’s possibly add to the ‘flood’ of interpretations of for instance the Beethoven quartets on record? What could be their artistic challenge? Nathaniel: “Maybe it’s a kind of ‘vanity’ project, just to have our own interpretation out there. On the other hand it is also an essential part of our growth as a quartet. These classic pieces have evolved the quartet medium, they are inseparable from it. And, as you said, where we are now is the result of all that. We strongly believe that it is very important to record these works at various stages in our career, to have a record of the relevance of our interpretations in the scope of it. But apart from that, Beethoven is as relevant today as he ever was. To have a contemporary take on his art is very important, and not only for and from us!”

One of the greatest virtues of any concert, no matter whether it is instrumental, chamber, choral or orchestral, is the programming, which should - in my mind – be daring first of all, but also versatile and interlinked, either by an idea, a motto or liaised with some sort of historical context that makes sense. I think that people should see the connections, even if centuries are separating them. The new and unexplored mixed with the well-established and familiar can work out very positively for each work on the programme. You might even get more synergy from a Beethoven quartet when you combine it with Ligeti’s, or vice versa. Nathaniel: “I don’t know. When I go to a concert with Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, and they play it beautifully, I will be very satisfied. It goes beyond saying that I shall feel rewarded by a very fulfilling musical experience. But apart from that we have the capacity to learn new things from familiar music, as a musician and as a listener. This is also what we talk about here, the intrinsic richness of the music, the tremendous value of it.”

But? “I feel very strongly about that, but I completely agree with what you said, that we need to broaden the musical perspective of the audience. Otherwise, music might indeed fizzle out at the end. The public must experience new sound worlds, new composition techniques, and it needs to develop the right perception for these. As you said, music must never be confined to the kind of museum we all detest.”


Music not exclusively kept within the walls of tradition and convention. It sounds spot on, but what would the concert agent say when the Navarra Quartet would propose Ligeti and Kurtág for the concert’s main course? Again, Nathaniel: “They often don’t want contemporary music to be performed in their hall at all.” Marije sharpens her pencil: “They never want it.” Good intentions are killed in front of the box office? Well, that sandwich formula might sometimes help out, with a small piece by Kurtág as the appetiser and Haydn and Beethoven as the main course. Nathaniel: “Once we did an experiment, by coincidence. We came to a concert, but we ‘misunderstood’ the programme, to put diplomatically (big smile).

Shostakovich was on the programme, but we thought we would play Schnittke. After some consideration we decided to give the audience a choice, and we took their votes on either Shostakovich or Schnittke. And you know what? They opted for…Schnittke! Wow! An interesting, ‘social’ experiment, so to say! But apart from all that, I think that at the end of the day it is our personal commitment to the performance of the piece that finally makes all the difference. Any audience will get at least something if not a lot from that. The public will distinguish the difference, whether they particularly like the music or less so; which is, on itself, quite another matter.”

Do they believe in the bare necessity of communicating with the public? Not by talking, but by the intensity of their playing? Nathaniel: “Yes, because when the message gets lost, there are only those notes.”

Breaking the borders

I suggested that lovers of the string quartet or any chamber music are already accustomed to more complex musical patterns compared to those mainly interested in orchestral works and operas. Marije: “In a symphony orchestra you have many instruments, many lines, many doublings, quite contrary to for example a string trio or string quartet.” Nathaniel: “I agree with you that there are all sorts of technical limitations in the orchestral scoring of the nineteenth century. Instruments and sometimes players were limited in their technical resources. On the other hand, there can be nothing against a composer or a musician who limits himself in order to let his creativity flow. There is not such as a limitless process, and that’s why composers developed devices and techniques to express themselves. The twelve-tone-system is just a technique and composers have been imposing that. I think it is crucially important that there are limits in order to create profound music. That doesn’t mean that I disagree with you, but I feel that Beethoven is almost een exception anyway because he adopted a unique language in his quartets, which he used to push the boundaries further ahead. Maybe that in the social environment he lived in he was or felt more free or compelled to experiment?. Not only because of form but also by breaking the borders of convention, with the symphony as his bread and butter. and the quartet as specifically his own, strictly individual domain, a terrain for himself that did not require specific technical provisions. Maybe that – together with the trio and the sonata - the quartet offered him the opportunity to test his own limits as a composer. We might also look at it in another way: with just two colours for a painting you can create an endless number of colours, and you may force yourself to do so.”

Alban Berg Quartet

You studied with the famous Alban Berg Quartet. What did you learn from them? Marije: “It is difficult to give examples, because they would be mainly technical, but the major objective of studying with them was to raise both our technical and interpretative standards as a quartet. They are so experienced and they know so much about the technical and interpretative characteristics of quartet playing that it was a delight really to absorb what they transferred to us. Of course, all four of them have a different approach to music, but that made it so fascinating, to see things from different perspectives, often anew, and to be gradually able to develop your own critical standards. They also taught us to play well even when we might not feel well, or when some distraction would come across.”

Do you usually follow the metronome markings in the score? Marije: “No, we don’t take these for granted. I’m not saying that it is easy to get the basic tempo right from the beginning. We all have our own bio! What is good for me is not necessarily good for the others. And it can change by the day. Working with the Alban Berg Quartet also means working with ourselves, trying to find the right pulse and to keep it. Discussions? Yes, plenty, but that is an inevitable part of the entire rehearsal process. At the same time it is exhilarating, inspiring and exciting to work hard on a score together.”


How do the four of you come to terms with the programme to be played? Nathaniel: “Funny enough, in our time as a quartet we never had any serious disputes about the repertoire. We’re very open to it, but we are obviously spoilt, with so many great pieces written for the string quartet. There is a lifetime of repertoire to be performed!

Simone: “We try a piece we want to play and, speaking for myself, at the end I love it to discern certain connections or to find quite interesting key points.” Marije: “In the last three years I felt really desperate to play the Brahms A minor quartet, but we are now going to play the piece!” Nathaniel: “You know, Marije, you always had the strongest opinion of the four of us about a certain piece! By discussing it back and forth you finally only need someone who is decisive, who wants to go for it.”

Compared to the sixties we have an incredible number of great quartets travelling throughout Europe, but also touring the United States, South America, Asia and Australia. Only the sky seems to be the limit. Many of those quartets, like the Artemis and the Navarra, were already founded when its members were still studying at the conservatory. Marije: “Sometimes you can just be lucky with a great teacher who stimulates playing together. It might just spark after a while!” Nathaniel: “We also may consider ourselves lucky with having the same type of background. That also applies to Magnus, who joined us later. I think it were not so much the specifics of our music making that brought and kept us together, but even more the energy we put into it, as a kind of extraordinary experience, and to share that with each other. We have proven ever since that we can draw on that.”

No leader!


Is there a leader? Seeing and hearing the quartet you on the rostrum I didn’t get the impression that there is one? Marije: “There isn’t any indeed. We play together, which also means we have one objective together. We know what we want to accomplish and how to do it with the best of our abilities.” Nathaniel: “Quartet playing also means to work on a specific sound, the necessity of meticulously blending each other’s musical individuality. Even when we have a disagreement about how a phrase here and there should go, we have our common goal in mind and we know that we always have to face the right direction.”

The violinist Xander van Vliet left and he was replaced by Magnus Johnston. What effect did the change have on the ensemble? Marije: “It brought us new and fresh energy.” Nathaniel: “We had a great time playing together with Xander for about eight years, but, of course, it is a different thing to work with Magnus now.” Marije: “It worked out very well, he loved it, and we loved it. Xander’s and Magnus’s playing is distinctive, but also Magnus touches common ground! As said before, heading for a common direction is the main thing.” Magnus: “I already played in quartets at college, with the same teacher as my three colleagues. In the last five years I got a few opportunities that came my way but at the time I didn’t feel quite ready to take on the challenge again. The life of a freelance musician is really quite different from the life of a quartet player. It is of a different intensity. I’m not saying that it was not in my thinking to get back to the string quartet, but maybe I just needed that call from the Navarra to get the feeling that this could really be it. I rang a few people to get their advice and finally decided to go for it, with an open mind. What I strongly felt with the Navarra was that same intention, that same spirit as I had. When it grabs you it doesn’t let you go. But it is arguably an all-or-nothing-career because there is not much left of a private life. Even when you’re not together, it is on your mind. Suddenly you’re so much more aware of the course of your own personal development and that of the quartet, and of your own responsibilities as a quartet player. A free lance musician does not experience that, he is more or less on his own, with far less pressure to cope with. I think that a solo career is less demanding in comparison.”

Nathaniel: “It is resilience, the ups and downs, as we are constantly challenging ourselves musically. You have to find your own voice, your own identity in the team and that is very, very intense. As a free lancer you turn up and you go home. Sometimes that’s great, sometimes it isn’t. A group is different cake, we are so much relying on each other! There are risks everywhere, and especially in the intense environment of the string quartet, but when you are prepared to take them, your reward can be so great. Always going for the safe route might leave you without those many pleasures!”

Historical perspective

Did performances by other quartets influence their playing? Nathaniel: “It would be fascinating to meet a musician who could develop his skills and then be exposed to music fresh. I would be amazed how he would interpret it? You can’t possibly distinguish between what you have learned and what is in front of you. It must have been something very, very special for Yehudi Menuhin to hear David Oistrakh playing at a live performance for the first time in his life, with Oistrakh coming straight from Russia. Maybe in the sixties and seventies there was more individuality in the playing. Today, we can hear the whole world, there is that strong sense of globalisation, off and on the record. It has become so easy to copy each other. I recall one great example of artistic individuality, Mstislav Rostropovich’ recording of Shostakovich’ Cello Sonata with the composer at the piano [recorded at Radio House, Moscow, date unknown, now part of the EMI Mstislav Rostropovich Complete Recordings release, 26 CDs, catalogue No 2 17597 2 7 – AvdW]. That incredible freedom of expression, it is so revealing! It shows you that vastly different interpretations can be of great importance and validity. It is a big responsibility for any artist to interpret the music in a very different way. Of course, there is no right or wrong, but it is so exciting to listen to quite a different take on a piece we think we know so well. In a way, to play great music is like giving birth to a child. It will grow up, it will become its own person and it will finally take its own part in life. It is virtually the same with music. A composer gives his music to the world and has to leave it from there to musicians to grow up. He can no longer protect it, although it will always remain his baby.”

Could they understand people who say that for instance the Busch or Végh Quartet sound old fashioned today? Nathaniel: “No, no, that’s just terrible! We should not look back like that!” Thus, we should not because we need to recognise that what we experience in music making today is not necessarily right (or wrong), compared to the past. Identifying gradually changed style mechanisms is one thing, dissenting them quite another. The greatness of the history of music making is also its plasticity. Nathaniel: “Yes, fifty years from now people will most likely have quite another idea about our current recordings. There is that great opportunity to leave our recordings ‘to the earth’, and that people just might listen to them about half a century later.”

Magnus: “My life, my musical perception was changed after having heard all those great masters I came to admire greatly. One day I would like to have the chance to teach this. We have all those great fiddlers, as you will know from that superb DVD, The Art of Violin, to name just one. It gives you more sense of what you’re doing yourself, and it gives you the kind of meaning, of direction you need for your own individual playing. It is so stimulating and there is so much added value in musical history!”  

The bare fact is that music making is always subject to time and taste. There are those old recordings that seem to stay with us forever, and for a very good reason, but I agree that each generation has his own Bach, or Haydn or Schubert.” Marije: “As Magnus said, we listen to very old recordings, like those of the Végh Quartet. There is so much freedom in their interpretations, so many great things to explore in them.” Nathaniel: “Nowadays musicians lack the courage to do it really in their own way. There are those careers that seem to demand a more safely guided approach. Musicians are judged all the time by almost anyone in this business and they need to be careful. In this highly competitive field it is neither customary nor easy to stick out your neck. You can but it is rare. I believe that the main thing is that you keep up with yourself; that you don’t compromise or imitate, that you remain faithful to your own musical thoughts and your playing style. Otherwise you might end up being nobody.”


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