This Cheltenham Festival concert featured three British string quartets by Hugh Wood, Michael Nyman and Giles Swayne. Swayne and Wood were both present at the concert and gave an introductory talk providing context for their works. Swayne said in the talk that ‘music should be unpredictable to keep the listener interested’. And appropriately, although we knew the programme for the evening, the pieces by Wood and Swayne are not frequently performed and therefore added a feel of the unknown and the new. This was by no means an easy listening concert, but nor was it unpleasant. It provided an intellectual recital that delved into the minds of current composers.

Castalian Quartet
Castalian Quartet

The string quartet is often thought to be a simple chamber group for which to write, but it offers a huge range of colours and textures and therefore a huge amount of flexibility. Arguably when you have four extremely good performers, it is easy to make even the muddiest of chords sound good. The Castalian Quartet was formed in London in 2010 and has a reputation for creating an impact. Immaculately dressed and younger than most professional quartets in the classical music world, they gave an air of maturity to their performance. The range of playing techniques required to play the three quartets was physically demanding yet handled with ease. The quartet’s performance was far from shy and the programme was challenging.

The music of Hugh Wood reminded me of that of Arnold Schoenberg. Underlying the unpredictability and veil of atonality in this piece lay a fairly traditionally structured quartet in four parts. His String Quartet no. 1 was commissioned fifty years ago (1962) for the Cheltenham Music Festival and so was a nostalgic moment for the composer. He was clearly impressed with at least the first part of the Castalian Quartet’s performance as his whispered rather loudly between the second and third movements: ‘They’re doing very well so far’. The third movement, described by Wood as an ‘adagietto’, was tense and dynamic, and the Castalian Quartet’s vibrato style complimented the music.

Nyman’s String Quartet no. 2 contrasted to both Swayne’s and Wood’s, with its repetitive rhythms and relentless drive. The piece was heavy and climactic, providing real body to the middle part of the concert. The unstoppable nature of each of the six movements stood in opposition to their abrupt endings. The dramatic impact was added on stage by the quartet lifting their arms high after a hypnotic rhythm. Swayne’s String Quartet no. 3 had a similar effect at the end of each movement, but it wasn’t as significant to the work. He interwove the well-known theme of Waltzing Matilda into his quartet as a dedication to Betty Tuckwell, as it was one of her favourite songs: the piece was commissioned in 1993 in memory of her.

Although the programme worked as a whole, it was a curiosity as to why Nyman’s String Quartet no. 2 had been placed between the quartets of Wood and Swayne. Nyman’s intention was to have his quartet performed amplified, as it was commissioned for a solo dance work. Nevertheless, the Castalian Quartet brought it to life and its performance stood out as the highlight of the concert.