Concerts are at the heart of what we do, and are still the best way of experiencing the astonishing depth and variety of the string quartet repertoire.
Quartet concerts can transport a listener from the heights of exhilaration to the most intimate states of contemplation. In our performances we aim to take risks, and make music that sings, dances, cries and laughs. We always talk to our audiences, even in ‘formal’ settings.
We offer a wide variety of programmes, drawing on very early chamber music (that's sometimes not even written for the quartet), as well as contemporary music hot off the press. And also plenty of the wonderful repertoire in the middle, of course. Like many quartets, we have a special fondness for Haydn!
We are also happy to include education workshops and pre-concert talks in tandem with evening performances, if appropriate. Please contact us for more information.
See the diary page for upcoming performances, and see below for a selected repertoire list and sample programme notes.
Johann Sebastian Bach
Die Kunst der Fuge BWV1080
Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet No.2
String Quartet No.2 "Wild Mountain Thyme"
String Quartet No.3 "Mad Piper"
String Quartet No.2 “Intimate Letters”
String Quartet in A minor Op.13
Fantasias in Four Parts
Pavan and Chacony
Programme Note Bank
Please contact us for information on reproducing notes, or requests for new ones.
J.S. Bach - The Art of Fugue (‘Die Kunst der Fugue’) BWV1080
Of all J.S. Bach’s venerated sets of instrumental music (including the two books of The Well-Tempered Klavier, the Goldberg Variations, and A Musical Offering), a special mythology surrounds The Art of Fugue (‘Die Kunst der Fugue’) BWV1080. It is tempting to see this extraordinary collection of fugues and canons, all derived from the same disarmingly simple subject, as a summing-up of Bach’s entire output; the ‘last will and testament’ of the master of counterpoint. And the tantalising final bars, in which the music simply tails off unfinished, hint at an even more irresistibly poignant conclusion: that Bach expired mid-phrase, never to complete his swan-song.
In fact, Bach had probably begun work more than a decade earlier and was preparing it for publication upon his death in 1750. This task was completed the following year, under the supervision of his son Carl Philipp Emanuel, though with numerous errors and ambiguities. It is most likely that the ending to the final fugue was completed, but lost during this process.
It is ironic, then, that probably the most controversial ambiguity surrounding the piece - that of instrumentation - stemmed not from the publishers’ incompetence but directly from the composer himself. Bach’s manuscript presents music in open score, with one staff per voice and no clear performance indications. In the modern era this instrumental flexibility has been embraced fully by a huge variety of performers and ensembles, resulting in an available range of interpretations almost unheard of in the western classical canon. But for generations this lack of prescription was regarded as evidence that the Art of Fugue was an exhaustive but entirely abstract exercise in compositional virtuosity; a culmination of years of experience in contrapuntal procedure whose worth could only be devalued by realisation in performance. Such a view naturally supported the idea of the set as Bach’s sublime final utterance, to be treated with reverence and detachment.
It is not unreasonable to assume that fugue, an often cerebral genre used primarily for teaching strict counterpoint, would lead to such a sense of emotional disengagement. In the case of Bach, however, to see the genre as an innately limiting set of rules is rather misleading. By contrast with what he described as the ‘wooden’ and ‘pedantic’ counterpoint of some of his contemporaries, for Bach these generic boundaries actually function as a creative stimulus, fuelling the need to find ever more inventive solutions to compositional challenges. These solutions consist of a total of eighteen movements (or ‘contrapuncti’) all built from the same original theme, of gradually increasing complexity in three and four parts. From relatively simple beginnings, they proceed through stretto fugues (using overlapping entries), double and triple fugues, mirror fugues, augmentation and diminution fugues, canons at various intervals, and fugues in multiple subjects.
However, the truly extraordinary achievement of the Art of Fugue is not so much its treatise-like compendium of fugal permutations, as the way in which Bach’s ‘solutions’ are rooted in more than mere artifice, but genuine expressive content or ‘affect’. In this interpretation, the ‘Art’ of the title surely refers to more than the practical details of fugal technique, perhaps describing instead the effort to elevate an abstract genre to a fundamentally human plane, of rhetoric and drama.
Accordingly, even in the short selection of ‘contrapuncti’ we are performing today, we encounter a huge range of feeling, from pained drama reminiscent of the Passions, to the sort of playfulness and dance not out of place in instrumental suites. The exciting headlong dash of Contrapunctus IX contrasts with the lilting but occasionally severe dance rhythms of Contrapunctus V, while the drawn-out narrative of Contrapunctus XI gradually builds to an increasingly pained struggle, impetuous rising gestures brought back down to earth by a resigned pathos. The narrative voice is constantly shifting, from huge crowd scenes one moment to a lone voice the next, while Bach allows occasional moments of bittersweet reflection to peer out from relentless, driving chromaticism. This sense of drama is present in the very first Contrapunctus, captured in microcosm by the extraordinarily tense, isolated chords that precede the final cadence.
Such a view of the musical content of the Art of Fugue, grounded in imagination and narrative, leads to a new, if speculative, conclusion about the reasons behind its ambiguous instrumentation. From this position, the composer’s lack of detail is surely meant to expand the range of expressive possibilities rather than diminish them. Perhaps, then, we do experience a tangible sense of summation, not through Bach’s mastery of compositional technique in itself, but instead through the music’s capacity to conjure a huge range of powerful images, internal dialogues and narratives.
© Chris Terepin 2015
Franz Schubert – Quartettsatz in C minor D703 (1820)
The characteristically dark opening of this well-known single movement for quartet conjures a complex, internalised world, rife with tension and barely-concealed rage. Strangely, though, the now famous ‘psychological’ undertones of Schubert’s musical language were rarely considered by musicians and audiences until as late as the mid-twentieth century, when the revolutionary performances of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau read complex layers of emotional turmoil into the composer’s apparently effortlessly tuneful song settings. Now, the combination of natural lyricism and heightened emotional drama seems to be such an innate feature of these scores that it is easy to forget how much the reception of Schubert’s music has changed over the last two centuries.
Certainly, this piece lives up to the composer’s songful credentials. More specifically, even, one can hear the beautifully defined textures characteristic of a composer experienced in writing for voice and piano; the partnerships of voices, and timing of the bass notes, provide a bed for the melody that is effective partly because it is so unobtrusive. The purity of the songlike theme, however, rarely remains undisturbed for long, and is frequently interrupted by obsessive repeated notes in the accompaniment and virtuosic, fiery scales in the first violin. Soon the character is transformed again and we enter a dream-world, where direction ceases almost entirely and the music revels in heavenly sequences. Throughout the vivid alternations between dream and nightmare that follow, one is left wondering: which will have the last laugh?
Schubert composed the single movement quartet in 1820, after four years without working in the genre. Although the last quartets are the most famous, he had already completed 11 by the time he came to write this one, D703. (The tendency to see this piece as a milestone, heralding a glorious ‘late’ period of quartet composition, is of course not unique to Schubert!) Although most of the early pieces are hardly performed, many of them are very effective; clearly the genre was close to his heart, as he had played quartets with his family while growing up in Vienna, and regularly composed for the same group. Like much of his music, though, the first public performance of the Quartettsatz was not until 1867, nearly forty years after the composer’s death.
A 40-bar fragment of a second movement exists; we don’t know why Schubert stopped working on the quartet. Having composed the first movement in a characteristically short burst of intense creativity, perhaps he struggled to invent material that would complement – live up to, even? – the strikingly profiled themes and streamlined structure of the opening. Had he finished the piece, one of the few things we can say with confidence about the later movements is that it would almost certainly not have concluded with one of Schubert’s characteristically wild Tarantellas, in the manner of the famous later quartets D810 and D887, or the C minor piano sonata D958. The movement we have already has its share of furious wildness – for both outer movements to be in swung 6/8 time would have been an extraordinary break with convention. In any case, since its rediscovery the piece has been a staple of concert programmes, serving as a touchstone not only for the Romantic sensibility, but also that characteristically “Schubertian” quality, of a perfected lyricism subtly but consistently undermined by doubt and inner turmoil.
© Chris Terepin 2016
Franz Joseph Haydn – String Quartet Op.20 No.4 in D major (1772)
Allegro di Molto
Un poco Adagio Affetuoso
Menuetto – Allegretto alla Zingarese; Trio
Finale – Presto Scherzando
Haydn’s effervescent writing for quartet is always suffused with wit and pathos, and is a complete joy to play. Despite this music dating from what is usually called the ‘classical period’, there is really rather little about the quartets that could be said to fit into this tidy historical bracket, with its normal associations, of restraint, politeness and elegant proportion. It’s often said of great composers that they work ‘against the grain’ of the conventions of their time, rather than within them. In the case of Haydn, often called the father of the string quartet, this patriarchal status arguably has less to do with the generation of new conventions than with his inventively breaking existing ones. In the Op.20 set, composed at Esterhazy during 1772, Haydn explores every facet of the human condition, encompassing the depths of despair (as in the operatic Capriccio movement of No.2, or the first movement of No.5), irrepressible warmth and joy (most of No.1) and playful, hushed complexity (the fugal finales of Opp.2, 5 and 6). These are pieces that dance, laugh, weep and sing.
Right from the outset of No.4 (in D major), the music thrives on ambiguity. All the instruments start simply enough, on the same note, but the gesture is unclear. Is it an upbeat, or a downbeat? As the parts peel away from each other, the phrase feels oddly uneven: Haydn has inserted a disconcerting extra bar. Before we can start to make sense of it, and to rationalise the lopsided phrase, or knit it into something else, it’s over, and we have to try again. Once more we play the opening phrase, and once more fail to join it to anything coherent. Just as the opening paragraph reaches some kind of sensible resolution, it is interrupted by an attention-grabbing fanfare by the first violin, at which point the quartet works in constantly shifting combinations to question, disagree, search, and – eventually – arrive somewhere else. The entire movement constantly keeps us on our toes as performers, and the few moments in it that are predictable are all the more beautiful for it.
The D minor second movement is marked Un poco Adagio Affetuoso, and constructed as a theme and variations. It is one of the few pieces cast in this form by Haydn (or anyone else!) that doesn’t include a variation in the opposite mode (which in this case would be the major). Just as an indication, even a piece as dark as Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet D810 includes a major version in its second movement! The melody twists and turns against the harmony in completely heartbreaking ways, an effect that is exacerbated by the bittersweet turn to F major in the first half of the theme. Although the atmosphere of portentousness suffuses the whole movement, the ways Haydn varies the theme each time offers decidedly different faces to the original theme, even allowing for the occasional hint of playfulness and hope. But perhaps the most extraordinary moment comes just when we think the piece has breathed its last; having returned to the familiar first version and neared its conclusion, with incredible sleight of hand Haydn brings us back from the brink to a passage of exquisite, timeless, tenderness. After building once more to a shattering peak of rhetorical strength, the coda concludes at last with a resigned sigh.
Ever a man of contrast, Haydn immediately throws us back into the streets, and one of the most raucous and rambunctious minuets he ever wrote. The marking is alla Zingarese, meaning “in Gypsy style”, and it needs little explanation other than to say that the marked stresses have the result of rhythmically destabilizing everything, creating a huge tension between hearing two beats and three beats in a bar. In the trio that accompanies it Haydn offers his players that most cherished of gifts, the potential for imaginative negotiation – and mis-negotiation – between the main cello line and the other three players. The piece ends with a short finale filled with skittish delights, again infused with gypsy styles. Watch out for our favourite moment, in which the viola rudely takes over the bass line, playing in its lowest register, while the second violin interjects rather inelegantly at the very top of the texture. It is hard to imagine more joyful, spirited use of four string instruments than this.
© Chris Terepin 2016
Henry Purcell – Pavan and Chacony
Franz Joseph Haydn – String Quartet Op.64 No.6 in E-flat
Benjamin Britten – String Quartet No.2 Op.36 in C
This evening we invite you to take an imaginative leap with us – and with the composers Purcell, Haydn and Britten – into two realms: of the dance, and of the theatre. Perhaps it’s more interesting to think of these parallel realms as cousins because, as we hope you’ll see and hear, it’s often difficult to disentangle one from the other! Plenty of the pieces we’ll play tonight have genuine ‘dancing’ titles: most conspicuously the two Chaconne movements, and there is also a Minuet and a Pavan. But even those movements that don’t draw attention to their origins by their titles are also infused from top to bottom with dance-like material. At the same time, and each in their different ways, all three of these pieces seem to demand, obsess over, and play with a narrative sensibility that is often profoundly theatrical. When composers invite musicians to dance on stage like this, they expect people to be watching – and for the ‘dancing music’ also to tell a story.
So, we begin with two dances in the old style by the most famous English composer of the seventeenth century, Henry Purcell. Though both Pavan and Chacony are in the same key (G minor) and are often paired in editions and in concert, it is not clear whether there is any historical justification in linking these two dances. They are also not ‘string quartet compositions’ in any real sense, though they work rather well; they would originally have been played either by a consort of viols, or by three violins with basso continuo. What we can say for certain is that both dance forms would have been extremely familiar to European musicians in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Pavan is a stately processional in 4-time, and the Chaconne (or the “Chacony” in Purcell’s Anglicised version) a piece constructed from a repeating bass line in which the upper parts engage in ever more elaborate flights of fancy.
Such dance types also frequently served as incidental music for theatrical occasions. And when these two are played as a pair, it does not take much imagination to hear these rather formal, functional dance pieces taking on their own compelling, dynamic narratives. Perhaps the impassioned, biting dissonances of the Pavan’s opening – eerily reminiscent of the opening chorus of Bach’s St John Passion, composed several decades later – compel us to take our seats, to witness the tragedy that will soon unfold in front of us (in the Chacony)? In its twists and turns of often devilish harmony, punctuated by occasional oases of calm, this dance is no passive pre-amble, but a powerful, profound gesture of intent. When the stage is finally set, the Chacony initially presents a scene that seems uncomplicated enough, in its unambiguous 3/4 meter, courtly gestures, and neat and tidy phrase lengths. But the further through the piece we get, the more the boundaries of harmony and decorum are blurred. Even over a bass line that can (generally) be trusted, the upper parts soon start to compete – both with the bass, and with one another. Sometimes they even become misaligned, the phrases overlapping as each voice tries to bend the harmonic logic of the collective to their will. If this was indeed ‘incidental’ music, such a label does Purcell’s taut and engaging musical argument no justice at all.
This is only the first chaconne you will hear. Many generations later Benjamin Britten, himself a lover of Purcell’s music, drew on this archaic dance form (again in 3 time) for the monumental final movement of his second quartet. In Britten’s movement the theme – which still has something of a courtly flavour – is announced even more unequivocally than in Purcell’s, by using a compelling ‘total unison’ sound that pretends to turn a string quartet of different instruments into a single orchestral string section. Having announced his theme in no uncertain terms, Britten then challenges us to hang on to it. Through ingenious manipulations of texture, harmony and rhythm, the veritable anthology of variations that follow dutifully retain this thematic reference point as the vehicle for a succession of dramatic characters. These include, perhaps, a loving lullaby, inconsolable sobbing, and mischievous game-playing. In each variation Britten also seems keen to dramatize the relationships between the players of the ensemble. Sometimes they are cast in obedient pairs, while at other times each take opposing sides (and inevitably make for stubborn opponents). And in three terrifying cadenzas he focuses the spotlight onto the individual, tasking each player with finding their way back to the chaconne via powerfully improvisatory soliloquys, each more intense than the last. In all but these solo passages, the insistent, strange ‘dance in 3’ lumbers along, though sometimes it wears an impressively inscrutable mask: it is not always easy to spot.
After an extended build-up over several variations, the violin finally explodes into a cadenza of obsessional, neurotic intensity, continuing to trill incessantly even as it starts to lose confidence in its material. And it is out of this desolate isolation that the theme is reincarnated, appearing in the lowest voice at first rather conditionally, before being passed to the first violin for one final attempt at reconciliation. After a thrilling bass descent, this epic take on the chaconne eventually arrives at a triumphantly dramatic unison restatement. It’s a final gambit that seems, in hindsight, like the inevitable destination: the only way it ever could have concluded.
The first movement of the quartet is perhaps the least imbued with dance-like music of the three, though there is a lovely lilting sensibility in the calm, almost aquatic opening material (marked senza rigore). And genuine dances do break out on several occasions, including a raucous country dance and a gentle, if curiously lopsided lullaby. But much of this movement is characterised by a kind of battle-scarred unease, including some particularly ingenious uses of special string-playing techniques (like harmonics and glissandi) for creating unsettling tonal colours and effects. At times the music threatens to overbalance completely – especially near its end, when the three separate melodies from the opening section are combined, set to mingle chaotically in alarmingly intense polyphony. Again, there is something profoundly theatrical about the writing here, especially in the use of varied textures to alternate between the inner life of an isolated individual, and the gleeful exhortations of a fired-up crowd. Hardly surprising: the piece was completed in 1945, only months after the premiere of Britten’s most successful opera, “Peter Grimes”.
Britten’s middle movement, titled only Vivace, is a startlingly original headlong rush in 6/8 time that can only be a dance of death: again, this is music that brings with it more than a few theatrical connotations. Structurally the simplest of all three movements but also more overtly virtuosic, it catapults listeners (and players!) into a mythical, ghoulish night. The textures here are so inventive it is hard to believe there are only four string players; from a combination of incessant rhythmic undulation, strangely overlapping cascades of melody and gunshot-like interruptions, Britten fashions a terrifyingly visceral soundscape. The middle section, perhaps the strangest music in the entire quartet, sees the first violin embark on a near-drunken quest, singing out in octaves above an inscrutable team of lower voices that continue, unmoved, to play their chillingly clinical tarantella-style accompaniment. The cello attempts to instigate a return to the original music, but he has a difficult task to accomplish first: to pull the other instruments down from horribly dissonant, squealing heights. Throughout, one gets the sense that this is music trying to outrun something. Does our protagonist escape in the end? It is not easy to say…
Finally, we look at Joseph Haydn, a composer often considered a paragon of a Classical, virtuous musical style and a master of instrumental music. His is a reputation sometimes contrasted with the more overtly ‘dramatic’ disposition of W.A. Mozart, but interestingly, like his younger colleague, Haydn also seems to have had a serious penchant for the theatrical, not only writing a great deal of music for opera and theatre, but also regularly drawing on those more ‘public’ styles in other music, such as his string quartets. He seems to have taken special pleasure, too, in mimicking and mocking the foibles, contradictions and nonsenses of the stage. One of the most famous examples of this is the Trio of the string quartet Op.33 No.2 “The Joke”, in which he ruthlessly satirizes the hammy vocal swooping of prima donna sopranos. In this quartet, Op.64 No.6 – also in E-flat major – he does the same thing once more, apparently finding this joke every bit as hilarious several years later.
In this piece, just as in the “Joke” and many other pieces, Haydn regularly invokes social class as a way of generating threads of musical narrative, or reference points for character. Using dance music and its associations is by far the easiest way to do this: if you want to portray an aristocrat with his nose turned up, just write an especially exclusive, aristocratic kind of dance. Perhaps you’d even make it “more so”. (Of course, your performers might want to act up to these depictions, too…) Haydn uses a huge range of dance types to do this, and often does it in movements that aren’t explicitly named as that dance – so these allusions pop up in all sorts of movements that you’d think ought to be ‘just music’. It seems that listeners of his time recognized these manoeuvres. In any case, this tension between ‘high’ vs ‘low’ style can be a great hook for listening to music of the ‘Classical’ period, and especially Haydn’s. In this wonderful quartet such references abound; especially (as one might expect) in the Minuet and Trio, but also notably in the Finale’s juxtapositions of country dance with learned counterpoint.
Beyond using dance as a way of creating theatre, Haydn has other gambits; for instance, taking us into the world of inward, confessional aria in the slow movement, before taking a decidedly Don Giovanni-esque ‘tragic detour’ in the middle section. Throughout the quartet, the composer he scripts the players’ potential interactions could hardly be more theatrically-minded. Whether the ‘theatre’ in question is a domestic living room or large hall, this is music that encourages improvisation, persona, irony and humour at every turn, and which allows imaginative narratives to be woven anew with every performance.
© Chris Terepin 2018