In the penultimate Proms Chamber Music lunchtime concert at the Cadogan Hall, the Armida Quartett and viola player Lise Berthaud – all past/present members of the BBC New Generation Artists scheme – packed an intense but well-balanced programme into an hour which was like having a perfect three-course lunch. I recently read that the pianist Stephen Hough is calling for shorter classical concerts without an interval to attract new audiences (although he is probably referring more to symphonic concerts) and I found myself agreeing that a shorter format can indeed sometimes lead to punchier programming. As it was Bank Holiday Monday, there were quite a few families that had brought children to this Prom, but they were quiet and attentive and judging by their faces they seemed to have enjoyed it. The programme was not particularly child-friendly, but evidently children know a classy performance when they hear it.

Armida Quartett © Felix Broede
Armida Quartett
© Felix Broede

What attracted me most with the programming was the musical variety on offer, which is not always in evidence with conventional string quartet concerts. The Armida Quartett opened on their own with Schubert’s short but striking “Quartettsatz”, which was followed by a new composition for viola and piano by Sally Beamish performed by Lise Berthaud and David Saudubray. To conclude, the Armidas and Berthaud came together to perform Mozart’s mature Quintet in C for Strings.

Schubert’s "Quartettsatz" is a great concert-opener, especially when played with liveliness and finesse as by the Armida Quartett, a young Berlin-based group. Their ensemble playing is perfectly balanced: each player is aware of his/her role in the texture and harmony, and they weave in and out of the texture with ease. One feels a strong sense of intimacy in their ensemble. Overall, they highlighted the contrast between explosive and dramatic opening and the introspective second subject effectively. The only blemish was the first violinist's occasional intonation glitch, which was also noticeable in the Mozart, but it did not affect the high standard of their playing as a whole.

The performance of Sally Beamish’s new piece Merula perpetua benefited greatly from having the composer on stage to explain the background and the structure of the piece beforehand with a BBC presenter. According to Beamish, the work is based on the song of a lone blackbird (Merula in Italian) that sang outside her bedroom window every night and disturbed her sleep. She took a series of notes from his song and created a ten-minute work about "insomnia" (in her own words). It was also written as a tribute to her mentor Peter Maxwell Davies.

The piece is in three continuous sections, each with its own inner momentum. It begins with a lively dialogue between high-register twitterings by the viola and the piano which becomes increasingly aggressive. They move to a slower and more lyrical section where the viola sings above the chordal passages in the piano that felt like a homage to Messiaen, the doyen of bird music. After a short and rhythmically playful final section, the song of the blackbird is reproduced on the viola as an epilogue. It is an intense ten-minute piece that took us on the composer's emotional journey. There was some rhythmically intricate writing for viola and piano but both Berthaud and Saudubray played with refinement and poise, capturing the spirit of the piece with youthful sensitivity.

The Mozart quintet was full of youthful and joyous ensemble making, with Berthaud now happy to play the supporting role of second viola. It is amazing how Mozart opens up so many expressive possibilities simply by adding one viola to a standard quartet formation: the work sounded at times more symphonic or operatic than is usual for a quartet.

Here too, the Armidas played with elegance and lyricism, although at times one yearned for a little more weight in the overall sonority, especially in the cello when playing the bass line. The substantial first movement was well-paced and thoughtfully structured, and they highlighted the textural changes beautifully. The coda in particular had wonderful momentum. On the other hand, I felt that the Minuet second movement lacked lilt and was a little mannered. In the Adagio movement, the first viola had some lovely melodies which were performed with elegance and warmth. The finale was taken at a lively and brisk tempo but played with impeccable control. Above all, the players were enjoying themselves and their enthusiasm for this music was certainly infectious.