Few modern string quartets can boast a line-up that has been as stable as that of the Endellion’s. In a remarkable 27 years of playing together its four members have explored and recorded a sizeable proportion of the quartet repertoire, as well as exploring new territory in works such as Thomas Adès’ dazzling Arcadiana. Nevertheless, with such a vast pool of music to draw from, there are still plenty of masterpieces with which the group has yet to become acquainted.

Endellion Quartet © Eric Richmond
Endellion Quartet
© Eric Richmond

The Haydn quartet which opened this concert was, until recently, one such work; their first performance of it just over a month ago, their leader Andrew Watkinson explained, marked the completion of their survey of all of the composer’s mature quartets. However, instead of the freshness of approach that might have been expected from such circumstances, their performance was characterised by complaisance and a lack of fantasy. Watkinson launched into the searching opening phrases with gusto but his tone was unstable and disengaged, whilst his negotiation of the chromatic voice-leading revealed intonation problems which would recur throughout the evening. In the second movement Watkinson made heavy work of the delicate (but fiendishly difficult) elaborations of its simple theme. This lack of control, combined with a rather ungainly accompaniment, meant that the grace and serenity which should permeate this entire movement were only found in its closing bars. The following Minuet was agile and vigorous, though in the Trio Haydn’s witty interruptions to the musical flow were not made to register as strongly as they should. The closing Rondo was more convincing, their daringly brisk tempo propelling the music forwards, though a by-product of this was a loss of detail; Watkinson dispatched long streams of semiquavers with little attention to the nuances of phrasing whilst cellist David Waterman struggled to imbue his bass lines with sufficient precision and clarity.

Whilst their Beethoven contained moments of exquisite beauty – like their sensitive handling of the slow movement’s conclusion – the problems that had plagued the Haydn returned and were further magnified. The intonation difficulties continued, though here it was Waterman who was the most insecure. A thrilling Scherzo was let down by its Trio, in which Watkinson nonchalantly skimmed over the fast passagework, failing to find a pianissimo with enough body to imbue the music with the necessary sense of direction and vital energy.

Thankfully, the Quartet displayed a far more committed approach to Bartók’s First Quartet, perhaps as a reaction to the work’s substantial technical demands. The first movement – despite some rather mawkish portamenti in the opening violin duet – was generally well judged; the music’s numerous twists and turns were navigated with assurance, culminating in an incandescent climax. The contribution of violist Garfield Jackson was particularly impressive here; his earthy outburst at the start of the second subject (a series of dissonant sobs repeatedly snagging against the cello’s resonant open fifth) proved to be one of the concert’s highlights. In the second movement the occasionally Debussian harmonies were imbued with an impressive range of tone colours, whilst the more agitated music was taut and robust. A series of impassioned but somewhat slapdash solo statements from Waterman set the tone for the final movement, where, regrettably, broad brushstrokes lead to a disregard of the finer details.