In an entertaining evening, the Allegri Quartet heralded Leamington Music's new chamber music season. With the opening quartet, the Allegri revisited the genesis of the genre with Haydn's Quartet in D Op.1 no. 3, which actually is a five-movement divertimento rather than a conventional quartet. Its soundscape initially is still Baroque, and where it allows the violins to communicate in the style of an antiphony, it mostly limits the cello to a mere accompanying function of single bass notes.

The Allegri Quartet © David Fisher
The Allegri Quartet
© David Fisher

Its first movement bears many parallels to the sonata da chiesa, and its resemblance of antiphony was highlighted by the quartet playing in unusual arrangement, with Ofer Falk on his regular place to the audience's left, and second violinist Rafael Todes to the far right. This order and the very sparse use of vibrato created a contrast between Falk's rather harsh tone to Todes' intensely warm and full sound, as well as a high level of transparency in which the distinctive sound of every player was recognisable. This astonishing level of transparency was furthered by the musicians' stunning dynamics. From a strong and forceful passage, they would retreat into a pianissimo with a suddenness of transition that would normally suggest an abrupt, unnatural cut of volume, but the Allegri's decrescendi had an organic, breathing quality that immediately made you look forward to the next one, just so you could admire this masterful effect once more. In the course of the majestically paced fourth movement and the resolute finale, some of whose light-footedness was lost in the heavy accents, the music undergoes some experimentation in writing and eventually sounds more like the Haydn as we know him now.

Next on the programme, the Allegri had brought a seldom heard work of anniversary composer Richard Strauss, whose name automatically brings to mind big orchestras with lush colours in tone poems, symphonies and operas. His earliest compositions, however, mostly are chamber music, and rather conservative at that, but his String Quartet in A major Op.2 is a very enjoyable piece nonetheless. In terms of composition, he is playing safe by modelling themes on established composers such as Mendelssohn and Schubert as well as Mozart. Its lively first theme was well accentuated and agile, yet the repetitions were blurred and weren't as discernable as they could have been. The odd squeak escaped Falk's violin, and in the grand thematic rises he looked and sounded strained, but nonetheless geared up for a fiery close. The rapid waltz opening the Scherzo was made even swifter by playing the offbeat-repetitions ricochet, but especially at the introduction of the theme, one would have wished for them to be a little more defined, as they were later in bowed form. The pizzicati, however, were spot on in every cue, and the following cello drones had a pleasant roughness to them. Where you caught yourself thinking about the "Happy Birthday" melody before, the beautiful theme of the third movement appears to anticipate a waltz in Shostakovich's Jazz Suite no. 2, which was only composed some 40 years later.

This characteristic line then led into the finale, which contrasts the cheery, playful and very Mozartian theme with strong syncopations that give it a 20th century groove. The evening's final work, Beethoven's String Quartet in E flat major Op.127, finally showed the Allegri entirely at home in the music. Be it the majestic introduction to the first movement in truly Beethoven temperament or the mystic sotto voce of the second, we heard some beautiful, crystal-clear high notes from the first violin, all sharpness yielding to an overall soft, full, romantic sound. The musicians also lost some of the previous rigidity and reserve, music and movements flowed freely, culminating in the fourth movement whose agitation is counterbalanced with warm lyricism that didn't suffer from the short moment of differing intonation, and it was writ large on their faces that they were enjoying playing this quartet. They were quickly persuaded to an encore for which they chose a work by Strauss' contemporary, Ludwig Thuille. The Minuet of his Quartet in G major was a warm and delightful close of an enjoyable evening that left me with a lasting earworm of Strauss' ebullient Scherzo

***11