This year the Proms Chamber Music Series returns to the bright and spacious environment of Cadogan Hall to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Claude Debussy’s birth. At the sixth concert in the series an inspired programme given by BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists, the Escher Quartet, paired two works exactly one hundred years apart in their composition: String Quartet No. 4, Op.34 (1993) by British composer Hugh Wood, who marked his 80th Birthday this June, and Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor, Op.10 (1893), a work that prompted one contemporary critic to refer to the him as ‘rotten with talent.’

Wood, who was in the audience, gave an insightful introduction to his composition. He cited Elliott Carter’s String Quartet No.1 (1950-51) as an important influence, quipping along the way ‘Yes, I have news for the Americans – there are a few Brits who are aware of Schoenberg’. He then revealed Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem Ulysses as a point of literary inspiration for his music, reading the following passage that captures the hero’s ceaseless fighting spirit:

‘Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.’

The first movement of the quartet proceeded with fiery determination, interweaving strong motivic gestures and extended techniques. Encroached upon by restless pizzicati, the music gave way to a contrapuntal violin cadenza. The ‘Scherzo’ offered a tour de force of skittish scrambling, jolting with Beethovenian terseness. This angularity was superseded by the sustained sonic atmosphere of the ‘Trio’, where hushed fanfares were executed on clusters of harmonics.

Wood’s third movement, an embroidery of mournful motifs, was rendered with dignified eloquence by the players. The finale returned with resolution to the spirit of Tennyson’s words, arriving at a vibrant trumpeting of the opening material. Wood’s writing for strings was consistently creative, particularly in exploiting communal crescendi and diminuendi. The Escher Quartet reproduced this ‘breathing effect’ in their performance with exceptional coordination.

Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor, premiered by the Ysaÿe Quartet in Paris (December, 1893), initially yielded ambivalent reviews. Although the work was cast in the classic four-movement form, it was perceived by critics to be ‘diabolically difficult’. The Escher Quartet’s performance bridged the perplexing gap between Debussy’s ‘academic’ arrangement of material (indicative of César Franck’s influence) and his mercurial gaming with ancient compositional forms. As the first movement commenced, the performers guided its nervous yet bold motto through a maze of modal deviation. A quick re-tuning by the cellist had unfortunate consequences for the second movement’s first four plucked chords, but intonation was briskly restored. Debussy’s patchwork of pizzicati elicited devilish finger-dancing across wood and string: following on from Wood’s work, this sounded as a second allusion to the sardonic world of Beethoven’s scherzi.

In the third movement the members of the Escher Quartet settled comfortably into their respective melodic lines. This was perhaps a missed opportunity, though, as the scoring may have lent itself more vividly to an exploration of the movement’s fragility. Debussy’s eccentricities, such as austere octave writing and intentionally awkward turns of phrase, were not always cherished. However, this ensemble certainly has an instinct for charged virtuosity, as was much in evidence during the final movement, which brought the programme to a glorious close.

Broadcast live from Cadogan Hall, the concert can be found on BBC Radio 3’s website, and is well worth listening to. Fortunately, the brief speed-dating exercise enthusiastically directed by presenter Clemency Burton-Hill in the run-up to the performance did not make the final cut. It was a manoeuvre that had uncomfortable consequences for those of us seated between over-zealous men hot on the ‘Proms marriage’ trail.