The Minimalism Unwrapped series at Kings Place has been questioning the concept of minimalism as much as affirming a body of works embodying the genre and its ideals. The Duke Quartet's concert was no exception, juxtaposing Kevin Volans' episodic Hunting:Gathering with the narrative sweep of John Tavener's The Hidden Treasure. While the programme effectively juxtaposed the individual voices of each of the composers, the Tavener received the most striking performance by far. 

John Metcalfe © Tom Oldham
John Metcalfe
© Tom Oldham

Hunting:Gathering, Kevin Volans' second quartet, explores the percussive potential of the string instruments as they enact a dialogue between African and European influences. The work unfolds in a number of short sections, clearly distinct yet obviously related, exploring the boundaries between continuity and unexpected wrenches. Volans revels in the play of sonority and rhythms, and so did the Duke Quartet: the sunny harmonic world and lively patterns were brought off with crisp articulation and a bright sound.

As the work progresses, dissonant elements begin to creep in, culminating in a melancholic final section – perhaps a comment on the problems with tying off ideas predisposed towards repetition. The Duke Quartet warmed the references to Viennese classicism with thick vibrato, in contrast to the streamlined athleticism of the modal ideas.

Gavin Bryars' second string quartet, completed just three years after Volans', is of a different world. Clearly bearing the influence of Nyman, the work brings together sweeping romanticism with pulsing rhythms. While there certainly are some special moments, most notably, the high viola and cello melody over rippling arpeggios towards the end, the emotional world doesn't seem sufficiently expansive to justify the work's length. 

Max Richter's Infra was written for Woolf Works, a collaboration between Wayne McGregor and Julian Opie which is currently playing at the Royal Opera House. The Duke Quartet only performed the final movement, Infra 8, which brings the forty-minute work to a sentimental close. Isolating the movement certainly diminished its impact: in this case, context is everything.

Violist John Metcalfe contributed the next piece to the programme. As She Fell was inspired by his mother's death: tender yet hollow at heart, the chant-like writing is suggestive of a requiem. Although intonation occasionally suffered, the quartet's interpretation was certainly poignant.

Tavener's The Hidden Treasure reconciled an episodic structure with a narrative arch, tracing a trajectory towards the unknown. Cellist Sophie Harris played the role of raconteur, her quietly expressive opening solo setting an expectant mood. Harris and Metcalfe were the strongest members of the ensemble, with the cellist contributing both reflective lyricism and a solid foundation for the rest of the quartet, and the violist's characterful sound injecting a richness to the group's sound. Although each of the works on the programme had contrast in them, this was the first which featured real conflict (and the first time the group played above mezzo-forte). The Tavener was also the only work in the concert to emphasise process over pattern, with a sense of transformation (or even transfiguration) as the tonal centre of A gradually came into being.

The focus on episodic structures emphasised the breed of minimalism predisposed towards stasis, with only the Tavener providing a different perspective. It was only in this last piece that the quartet truly came alive, leaving me with the sense that a different selection of works could have played much better to the ensemble's strengths.