For the first of two short concerts that the Chilingirian Quartet presented on the opening evening of the Kings Place Festival, they focused on two quartets by Joseph Haydn. Both were written in 1793 following a previous highly successful trip Haydn had made to England, and were intended to satisfy the demand of London audiences.

The String Quartet in C, Op. 74 no. 1 opened proceedings, with the pair of chords which begin the first movement (Adagio moderato) sounding admirably full-bodied. The succeeding theme and spirit of invention that inhabit the movement, indeed much of the quartet as a whole, found the musicians exploring the composer’s carefully crafted sinuous instrumental lines with much affection. A sense of light and shade was easily established and maintained. Some fiery moments were seized upon by lead violinist Levon Chilingirian and accentuated by his precision of tone. This was balanced by the intricate writing exposed by the illuminating playing of the other three instrumentalists.

Much in the way of subtlety marked out the playing of the second movement (Andantino), with the quartet appearing to take particular note of the grazioso (“graceful”) marking. In turn, each of the players made their presence felt, with Philip De Groote’s cello playing in particular being finely judged and unassumingly present. The third movement, a Minuet marked Allegro, was crisply articulated. This had the effect of showing the movement’s serious side before some warmth of feeling and humour also became apparent. The Vivace finale is one of the most brilliant movements Haydn wrote for a string quartet. The players of the Chilingirian Quartet explored its plethora of motifs with gusto, making much of the near-rusticity of some passages, where some higher instrumental lines are played over a quasi-bagpipe drone by the cello. Bringing the work to a close, a near orchestral sense of scale is demanded by Haydn in the final pages, which the Chilingirians duly delivered.

The String Quartet in E flat, Op. 71 no. 3 followed immediately, since the concert had no interval. The Vivace first movement had a great sense of playfulness in hands of the Chilingirian Quartet. The two recurring motifs of the falling third interval, shared apparently almost at will amongst the players, and the repeated rhythmic punctuation vied for prominence, though neither over-dominated proceedings. The second movement, marked Andante con moto, began with a feeling of warm nostalgia before minor-key variations added much in the way of interest. This was effortlessly continued with the subsequent major-key variations that ensued. The Menuetto and Trio third movement was carried off at a sprightly tempo. The light-hearted and jocular character of Haydn’s writing afforded each of the quartet’s musicians the opportunity to deftly excel in their pianissimo passages. It was only in the closing Vivace finale that I felt greater precision of execution in the bowing could have given extra brilliance to the rapid presto passages. However, given the sense of joviality in evidence, this could be forgiven, as this in no way impeded the musical themes being gathered together to conclude truly con brio, with vigour and spirit.

A mere 20 minutes later the quartet were back for more: read about their second recital, featuring music by Haydn and George Enescu, here.