Oxford’s Coffee Concerts are a perfect recipe for a slow-paced morning. Preceded by complimentary coffee in a nearby café or pub, the series brings chamber music to the historic Holywell Music Room and finishes in time to let the audience find a spot for Sunday lunch. This week’s concert had been relocated to the Magdalen Auditorium, a theatre with tiered seating and walls adorned by sketches and paintings of the college’s buildings. Although by no means large, the Auditorium was less intimate than the usual venue.

Allegri String Quartet © David Fisher
Allegri String Quartet
© David Fisher

The Allegri String Quartet’s forthcoming season includes a complete cycle of Beethoven’s string quartets, and it was with Beethoven’s Op. 18 no. 1 in F that they opened the concert. Despite the size of the auditorium, the ensemble’s performance had a confidential feel to it (even if a little more projection would have been desirable at some points). The opening movement encompassed a range of moods, from the lilting opening theme to the poignantly voiced chords closing the second subject. However, the players occasionally strayed a little too far towards outright violence for my liking: this was a Beethoven of extremes, oscillating wildly from hushed murmurings to forceful exclamations.

Dorothea Vogel’s mellow viola tone was a delight, although the other players’ intensity of sound occasionally lapsed. This was the case at the opening of the second movement. Although this movement had some special moments, the performance was less than consistent. The quartet’s playing was marred by slips of intonation, and the crux of the movement was not prepared, but arrived suddenly. After the nimble and playful third movement, the finale opened with a carefree gesture passed between the players. As with the previous movements, I felt that the group needed a tighter connection. Despite finishing with a full sound, the movement lacked the sense of conclusion which it so required.

The quartet brought a greater depth of interpretation to their performance of Brahms’ Op. 51 no. 2 in A minor. However, the piece was still marred by their tendency to over-theatricalise: the movements needed more of an overall vision to bind them together. The opening movement began at a rather rushed tempo, although the spacious second subject allowed the music to breathe. The urgency which the players brought to the movement worked better at some points than others: the reappearance of the transition section, for example. Once again, intonation proved a problem.

The second movement began with a firm accompanimental line, and continued to avoid sentimentality through the driving force of cellist Vanessa Lucas-Smith. The ensemble still managed to capture the contemplative feel of the movement: transitions subtly dissolved, and Lucas-Smith’s solo was wonderfully mellifluous. The quartet certainly conveyed the sense of tragedy inherent in the third movement, interrupted by the energetic, fleet-footed interlude (delicately articulated by all).

The finale proved not only the highlight of the work, but of the entire concert. The players brought a fiery and strong sound to the czardas, taking it at a lively tempo and injecting it with rhythmic dynamism. The quartet’s extremes of expression worked well in this context, pitting lyrical interludes against passionate explosions and culminating in a frantic coda. This movement was a glimpse of the true potential of the Allegri String Quartet, and I left the auditorium wishing that the players had brought the same vitality to the rest of the concert.

**111