Durham University’s concert series Musicon has been moving around different venues in the city over the last few years, and this year has been putting on concerts in the College chapel of St Hild and St Bede. The traditional sideways-facing rows of seats are sometimes a bit awkward for concerts, but the Allegri Quartet used the layout to their advantage, and positioned themselves in a circle right in the middle of the chapel, in the heart of the audience. The acoustic ensured that the four instruments were well balanced, and the result was a very intimate performance, with the audience drawn deeply into the music. At times I could even feel the wooden pews resonating, which only added to the effect.

Allegri String Quartet © Benjamin Ealovega
Allegri String Quartet
© Benjamin Ealovega

This evening’s programme was a neat little sampler of the string quartet repertoire, with one representative work each from the classical, romantic and modern eras. (They were originally planning to play Strauss, but switched to Brahms because one player had suffered a hand injury.) These three extremely different works also demonstrated the versatility of the Allegri Quartet, as they switched effortlessly from one style and mood to another.

Haydn’s Op. 74 no. 3 (“The Rider”) was written towards the end of his life, and for the first time he was writing string quartets specifically for public consumption rather than private court performances. It’s elegant, stylish, and in this cheerfully relaxed performance by the Allegri Quartet, effortlessly easy to listen to. The galloping fourth movement that gave rise to the quartet’s nickname had a lovely energy, spurred on by first violinist Ofer Falk, who also offered some very expressive playing in the more sombre second movement. I was sitting opposite cellist Vanessa Lucas-Smith and she was a delight to watch throughout the concert, as her face and body responded to the music, but particularly so in this Haydn quartet.

From the elegance of Haydn, we were thrown into the emotional turmoil and horror of Janáček’s First String Quartet, subtitled “Kreutzer Sonata” and based on Leo Tolstoy’s novella of the same name. The story tells of a man who murders his wife in a fit of jealousy when he discovers she is having an affair with a violin player: their performance of Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata sparks off the husband’s jealous rage. Janáček’s quartet tells the story very vividly, almost crudely – the third movement, for example, opens with a lovely violin and cello duet based on a theme from Beethoven’s sonata, which is then suddenly interrupted by enraged shrieks from the other two instruments and dissolves into an angry cacophony. And we know that this is coming because the second movement built up the suspense with scary tremolo passages and a sense of foreboding. The Allegri Quartet’s performance of this highly dramatic piece was intense and unrestrained, capturing the violence, fear, and rage of the story’s narrator. Listening to them, I began by thinking that I really must read Tolstoy’s story, and ended by feeling that I didn’t need to because they had already told me everything about it through the music.

Brahms’ Second String Quartet after the interval took us in yet another direction, this time showcasing the string quartet as one of the great expressive vehicles of German Romanticism. The opening phrase is built on the notes F-A-E, a phrase used several times by Brahms and Schumann to signify the great romantic motto of their friend Joachim – “Frei aber Einsam” (“Free but lonely”). Brahms’s music treads a delicate line between restraint and emotion, and to my mind, the Allegri Quartet had the balance just right, particularly in the very expressive first two movements. There were odd little corners in the faster passages of this quartet that were not as polished as they could have been, but as this piece was a late substitution, this was understandable.

The final movement is one of Brahms’ great gypsy-inspired dances, in which he shakes off his dour exterior and has some fun. The bold syncopations of the opening were full of passion, and the Allegri Quartet created a marvellous sense of expectation in the hushed passage just before the final energetic flourish that makes such a good ending to a concert.

****1