The Chilingirian Quartet’s second concert at the Kings Place Festival followed barely twenty minutes after their preceding concert had concluded. Three factors were common between both events: the playing of two works without an interval, the presence of Joseph Haydn, and, most importantly, a uniformly high standard of musicianship. In all other senses however there were contrasts to be enjoyed, not least in the unusual pairing of Haydn’s String Quartet in D, Op. 71 no. 2, with the String Quartet no. 2 of the Romanian composer George Enescu.

Chilingirian Quartet at Kings Place © Graham Topping
Chilingirian Quartet at Kings Place
© Graham Topping

During his lifetime it was largely as a world-famous violinist that George Enescu made his reputation alongside his activities as a teacher, conductor and pianist. In between these he was a prolific composer in practically all genres, with chamber music being especially prominent in his output. Enescu’s music is notable for its technical challenges for string players in particular, since the composer brought practical experience of playing every member of the string family to his writing. Recent years have seen an international resurgence of interest in Enescu’s music, with both recordings and performances becoming increasingly available. The Chilingirian Quartet recently added the second quartet to their repertoire, proving that after nearly 40 years of concert activity they retain a spirit of adventure to enquire, explore and discover. I had the opportunity to hear the Chilingirians’ first public performance of this work at the closing concert in June this year at the Enescu Society in London. It was immediately obvious that further performances in the intervening period have increased the Chilingirians’ confidence of approach to play the music with distinctive panache.

Written in 1951, four years before Enescu’s death, the quartet is in four movements. The first two movements evoke a state of calm meditation punctuated by some more anxious soul-searching. An almost nocturnal tranquillity and sense of nostalgia characterised the opening movement from the beginning, with the specifically Romanian feeling of “dor” – perhaps best understood as a kind of bittersweet longing – being particularly prominent. This was largely achieved by the musicians’ willingness to explore the hues and tones of Enescu’s melodic writing. As the movement progressed the music’s occasional folk influences were neatly underlined by a subtle ground line in the cello part before a march-like section smartly interjected proceedings.

For the second movement, which is seemingly set in the key of E major, the instruments are largely muted. The Chilingirian players effectively and imaginatively explored themes across the collective instrumental ranges to highlight their rhythmic dexterity. In forming a tight texture of sound they maintained its subdued mood even as the dynamic climax was approached. The last two movements provided a marked contrast with their energy and vitality. The third movement is a scherzo; its broad interval leaps are a notable feature of Enescu’s writing. These were explored and delighted in alongside internal elements of greater subtlety, though the music’s almost hostile character largely held sway. The finale, a rondo of some complexity, is marked Con moto – Molto Moderato – Energico. With their forthright and purposeful attack, moulding of instrumental lines and overtly beautiful collective tone, the Chilingirian Quartet more than successfully met Enescu’s challenge to combine the contrasting internal moods within a convincingly coherent musical structure. It is to be hoped that the Chilingirian Quartet might now add Enescu’s more lengthy and difficult first string quartet to their repertoire.

The Chilingirian Quartet closed the concert with a return to the more familiar repertoire of Haydn, with a quartet whose four movements are equally weighted with regard to their seriousness and playfulness. The Chilingirians brought much in the way of wit and flashes of youthful sparkle to their playing of the quartet’s opening Adagio movement. This was appropriately balanced by a sense of wisdom won through much experience, both on the part of Haydn and the players themselves. The cantabile element of the Adagio second movement was much in evidence in this performance, once again showcasing the ensemble’s skill in stylistically shaping and blending their individual parts. The brief, Allegretto minuet was dispatched with appropriately crisp articulation and briskness of tempo to bring some much needed light relief in terms of thematic ideas along the way. The Allegretto finale continued where the previous movement left off, with infectious enthusiasm being the order of the day, and thus concluded a most memorable concert.

*****