The Carducci Quartet’s appearance in the Holywell Music Room marked the halfway point in the Oxford Coffee Concert’s Autumn series. This late-morning concert saw the ensemble pair two D major quartets, from 1781 and 1949. It was the latter which received the more convincing performance, with the quartet clearly more engaged with Shostakovich’s troubled utterance than Haydn’s lean textures.

Carducci String Quartet © Andy Holdsworth photography
Carducci String Quartet
© Andy Holdsworth photography

Haydn’s Op. 33 set is best known for the second and third quartets (“The Joke” and “The Bird”, respectively). Written just a few months later, the sixth and final quartet of the set is in a sunny D major (with the exception of the pathos-laden second movement). However, the Carducci Quartet didn’t quite seem to click with Haydn’s style: the Vivace assai first movement felt slightly hurried (with passagework noticeably rushed), failing to illuminate the movement’s easy charm. Although the ensemble had clearly taken care with phrasing and matching their articulation, I felt that the performance lacked an overall conception of each movement. For example, the outer sections of the ternary-form Scherzo didn’t quite have the cadential drive which lends the movement its momentum. The blend of the quartet proved to be an issue throughout the concert. First violinist Matthew Denton’s sound had a slightly hard edge, meaning that it had a tendency to protrude above the rest of the ensemble. Perhaps most worrying of all, though, were the rhythmic slips in the first two movements. For the most part, this was a perfectly adequate performance of Haydn; however, I didn’t feel that the ensemble had really connected with the piece.

Although completed in 1949, Shostakovich’s String Quartet no. 4 was withheld for four years before its first public performance. Opening with a bright and affirmative D major, this confidence soon collapses as chromatic ambiguities creep in. Denton’s introduction to the work emphasised its expressive element, suggesting that the quartet gradually exposes the private Shostakovich. In the Carducci Quartet’s performance, however, the emotional turmoil sometimes felt slightly wilder than was necessary: for example, the work’s first major climax would have been much more effective if more care had been paid to balance and intonation.

Overall, the Carducci Quartet gave a much more satisfying performance of the Shostakovich than the Haydn. The attention paid to the dramatic aspects of the piece made this an engaging (if far from flawless) performance. The nightmarish third movement was undoubtedly the highlight of the concert: visceral and exciting, the players drove the movement incessantly onwards. Unfortunately, the quartet’s viola player, Eoin Schmidt-Martin, was often lost in the texture of this movement, and lacked the same crispness in his articulation as the rest of the group.

The quartet brought a sense of buoyancy to the folk-inspired finale, conveying a mounting sense of desperation towards the eruption into the instruments’ upper registers. Despite the length of the movement, the quartet’s flair for the dramatic meant that they sustained the level of tension, guiding the piece towards the peacefulness of the glowing chorale passages at its end.

Cellist Emma Denton emerged as the star of the Shostakovich: only with her entry did the second movement realise its sense of elegy, and the intensity of her upper range played a large part in the urgency of the finale. Credit must also go to the quartet’s second violinist, Michelle Fleming: throughout the concert, she displayed poise and a warm yet robust tone.

Although still by no means flawless, the Carducci Quartet were clearly more at ease in Shostakovich. The ensemble gave a much more characterful performance of this quartet than of the Haydn, embracing Shostakovich’s expressive range.