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.
Whether formal or informal, quartet concerts can transport a listener from the heights of exhilaration to the most intimate states of contemplation. In our performances we aim to make music that sings, dances, cries and laughs, and we want you to feel the same.
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.
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.
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"
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String Quartet in A minor Op.13
Fantasias in Four Parts
Pavan and Chacony
Sample Programme Notes
Please contact us for information on reproducing notes, or requests for others.
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
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