Freezing lunchtime weather made the golden uplighting on the stage a particularly welcome sight. The Badke Quartet played two pieces in this hour-long programme: Haydn’s Quartet in D major Op. 20 no. 4,, and Britten’s Quartet no. 3. To celebrate the Britten centenary, the Badke Quartet explained that they plan to play their way through all three of Britten’s string quartets during the course of the year.

The Badke Quartet © Tas Kyprianou
The Badke Quartet
© Tas Kyprianou

It’s not uncommon to see Haydn and Britten paired alongside each other. In this concert there seemed to be several reasons for this pairing. This Haydn quartet is arguably the most popular of all his quartets, probably because it is such a cheerful piece. This meant that the Haydn could act as an “icebreaker” for the Britten which, filled with suspensions and atonality, was more challenging for the listener. This contrast also allowed the Badke Quartet to show their impressive flexibility as performers, switching between two very different styles back to back.

When they started playing the opening notes of the Haydn, the rich sound was what struck me straight away. A melt-in-the-ears quality which, combined with the afternoon’s programme, made the atonality of the Britten less of a challenge and the Haydn that much sweeter. The Haydn is known to be one of the most technically demanding of the six published in 1772. The speed and coordination between the four parts leaves no rest for the performers, particularly in the last movement, in which the tempo went faster and faster. The long, slow second movement was the least interesting of the four. Designed to be a glorious moment in the middle of the work, it felt a little too uneventful and dragged a little. This was picked up and thrown off the stage as the Badke Quartet launched whole-heartedly into the Menuet. It was performed a little faster than I have heard it before, but the rhythms were present and dynamic. The quartet even got a few smiles and laughs from the audience at the end of this movement, acknowledging Haydn’s witty and playful style of composition.

Quartets have always had a habit of chopping and changing their artists over time, but I was a little surprised to see two completely different violinists walk out on stage from the picture on the programme. It left me wondering how, if half the quartet has changed, whether it can still be classed as the same quartet. Musically the sound must be different, as the subtleties of each instrument’s input into a quartet as a whole is significant. Different instruments and different personal methods of playing will automatically create a new sound. Despite the variation, this version of the Badke Quartet were great – they had style, presence and technique to the envy of any string player.

Each movement of the Britten String Quartet no. 3, was explained in detail by cellist Jonathan Byers. Five movements create an arch structure with some “birdsong” at the peak in the middle providing an intermezzo to the main work. The only part of the Britten that felt a little lacking was the opening rhythm. It needed to be a little stronger to carry the foundation of the arch that the work was about to build, but the peak was the peak. Emotional in nature and full of suspensions creating a true sense of longing, the piece was wonderfully played. When the performers explain the music it can aid the enjoyment, making the piece understandable and allowing the audience with lesser knowledge to identify with the different parts of the the work.

Charlotte Scott’s violin solo at the beginning of the third movement was moving and haunting, increased by her powerful vibrato. The sad melody develops alongside accompanying ascending suspensions and then leads to a pizzicato chord, breaking into the birdsong. Unlike in the Haydn, this slow movement did not let itself lose heart, but projected beauty and was the highlight of the concert for me. The powerful and punchy burlesque movement contrasted. To switch from such an ethereal sound to a bold folky dance with powerful effect demonstrated the Badke Quartet’s talent. It was also great to see viola player Jon Thorne have a chance to lead, as the viola can sometimes be quite a hidden instrument in a string quartet.

This was a brief hour that could have happily been watched again, but which left me with fulfilment and contentment. The depth brought to the music by this talented quartet made this performance enjoyable and invigorating. It highlighted the importance of the nature of performance in making a piece of music work – and even if they weren’t the four people I expected to see on stage, they were still extremely talented musicians.