Hearing a work when the composer is in the audience always adds something to the occasion and the performance, and we’re fortunate in Durham that this seems to happen quite frequently. This evening’s concert by the Allegri String Quartet, held in the music department as part of the University’s Musicon series included the première of Anthony Payne’s String Quartet No. 2, and in a few words before the performance, the composer reminded us that he studied music at Durham in the 1950s. He went on to tell us that not only had he attended lectures in this evening’s concert room, but that his first ever work had been performed on this stage, so it was a special occasion for him.

© Benjamin Ealovega
© Benjamin Ealovega

His single movement quartet he describes as being a continuous search for something unknown. It comprises an opening fast section, followed by a slower part and concluding with an extended coda in which both the fast and slow ideas come together, but he has a sense that each part is present throughout the work, even when we don’t hear them. The fast opening section gives each performer a chance to shine in varying solo passages, interspersed with furious tremolo sections, and rising phrases suggestive of unresolved questions. The opening faster music gradually dies away, low in the cello and viola, as the music moves to a more contemplative mood, with some beautiful mellow playing from the lower instruments. Again, this section dies away in long sonorous cello notes, as the violins return to a faster tempo, and breaking up into little quizzical passages. The piece closes with repeated, incessant little trills, gradually getting higher and higher, until they disappear.

Anthony Payne’s quartet was sandwiched between two very different Beethoven quartets: the G Major Op.18, no.2 and the third of the Razumovsky quartets (Op.59, no.3). The Op.18 which opened the concert was beautifully light and airy, and performed mostly with a playful delicacy. The third movement scherzo was particularly pleasing; the Allegri Quartet’s playing reminded me of a happy family round a dinner table, alternating between finishing each others’ sentences or all chatting volubly at the same time. By contrast, the second movement was serene and plaintive, and the Allegri Quartet’s delicate sound broadened out into a much warmer sound. The final movement was more energetic, and gave us a hint of the larger Beethoven work that was to follow in the second half.

The three Razumovsky quartets, written for the Russian ambassador to Vienna are famous for the incomprehension that they provoked from players and critics when they were first written (when Clementi asked Beethoven if he seriously considered them to be music, the composer gloriously responded “Oh they are not for you, but for a later age”). It can be hard to remember their controversial reception in view of all the musical developments since then, but the contrast with the Op.18 work played earlier was quite striking, and helped us to think back to how the Razumovsky quartets might have sounded to their first audience. Gone are the clear classical lines and the sense of playfulness; this was much more complex, structurally and harmonically. It opens with slow, chorale like chords, before the first violin breaks away and the piece explodes. Unlike the first two Razumovksy quartets, the third does not contain an explicitly Russian theme, but the graceful solo lines of the second movement have a distinctly Slavic flavour and were played in a relaxed, dance-like way. The tiny pizzicato notes that closed the second movement were particularly lovely, and the third movement recalled some of the classical grace of the earlier work. The final, fugal Allegro is fast and furious, and the Allegri Quartet played with a stylish passion, the syncopated cello part driving the piece forwards, urging it on to its triumphant conclusion and well-earned rapturous applause, for Beethoven and for the Allegri Quartet’s dazzling playing.