Dr Roger B. Williams’ scholarly yet accessible programme notes highlighted the fact that Haydn’s 1793 String Quartet no. 57 in C major was, unlike some chamber music, written with an audience of the general public in mind. Call it biographical fallacy, but I felt I could hear this in the presentation of the opening bars. Haydn’s intention to hold his audience’s attention was evident in careful attention to dynamics, phrasing and very well rehearsed articulation. Haydn’s choice of sonata form for all but the Menuetto suggests that drama was uppermost in his mind. Once the lyrical themes are stated, the development section of the opening Allegro moderato enters more turbulent chromatic territory and the intensity of the playing reflected this.

Edinburgh Quartet © John Need
Edinburgh Quartet
© John Need

Since the second movement is an Andantino grazioso, there is no slow movement as such and the pace was kept up nicely here. This movement felt beautifully lyrical, its graceful triple time only lightly threatened by occasional groupings in pairs. Where the listener is truly thrown is in the second half, where, by virtue of an astonishing chord change, we find ourselves in the distant territory of C sharp minor. This darkly subsiding moment was wonderfully handled. The Menuetto leaves C major for a Trio in the much brighter A major. In addition to the tonality, the quartet brought out a lighter texture here. The movement which really gripped me was the Finale: Vivace. I somehow imagined I had the measure of Haydn, but was really surprised by this movement’s ferocity and extremely impressed with the playing. In addition to energising counterpoint, there are ear-catching syncopations and virtuoso lines for all four players, excellently delivered here.

Prokofiev’s three-movement String Quartet no. 2 in F major features themes from Kabardinia, north of Georgia. The resulting music, while unarguably tonal, often feels non-Western. The opening, sonata-form movement, Allegro sostenuto, contrasts themes in the tonic and dominant, the latter of which begins like a parody of “Good King Wenceslas”. The burlesque joy of the opening theme was infectiously communicated. Even the movement’s many dissonances came across as sounding happy.

The theme of the central Adagio featured beautiful, Phrygian-mode high-wire work by cellist Mark Bailey. The contrasting D major theme had something of Ravel’s Boléro and was very light on its feet thanks to energising pizzicato and ricochet bowing accompaniment. Following this cheer, the opening material’s return seemed all the more bereft. The contrast between the movement’s sections is more gradual than a description of the themes’ character might suggest and the quartet’s gradual morphing of mood was very impressive.

The virtuosic closing Allegro boasted some spirited dance-like passages, not unlike early Stravinsky; it’s always difficult to sit still during such moments. I especially enjoyed the oxygenating pizzicato and isolated examples of sudden sul ponticello chords where the bow’s proximity to the bridge produced startling harshness. A dramatic cadenza for solo cello provided an effective foil to such sprightly teamwork. Not all the energetic passages, however, were fit for dancing; some had a frenetic “thrill of the chase” about them. I thoroughly enjoyed this zestful work and was amazed to read that Prokofiev had suffered a heart attack prior to its composition.

I’m always intrigued by the process of programming, an element usually left to audience speculation, and found myself wondering if the final work was intended to mirror the opening in which Haydn plays with the colour of remote keys. Dvořák’s symphonic 1895 String Quartet no. 13 in G major pits the home key against B flat major; E flat major briefly against its tonic minor; and B minor against its relative major of D. In fact, the emotional heart of the piece depends on this tension between major and minor modes and its eventual resolution.

The opening Allegro moderato was delivered with great cheer. I found myself smiling at a rhythmic cello motif still enjoyed today by Status Quo fans. During the Adagio ma non troppo, the word “Bohemian”, often aimed vaguely at such music, came to mind and I found myself wondering what it really means. In this case I felt that “outdoors” as opposed to “drawing room” seemed applicable. This movement’s short minor introduction rendered the following major key music much warmer – less taken for granted. Tristan Gurney’s soaring violin cadenzas were excellent.

While I enjoyed all the movements, my favourite was the third, the Molto vivace. This is the only piece I can recall where this is the case. Third movements are so often squeezed between timeless Adagios and brimming Finales. The character of this movement, certainly as played here, held its own. That said, I also really enjoyed the fiery Finale. The warm response suggested that the audience had enjoyed this 2013/14 season opener as much as I had.