Aren’t nicknames interesting! I’m sure there’ll have been hundreds of studies into the development, designation, and deployment of nicknames and the historical and sociological conclusions we can draw from the Daves, D-Diddies and Dangerous Dans alike. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if the nickname formed the basis of an entire field of academic enquiry. If so, there’s bound to be a musical contribution, for nicknames abound in music, and their connection with the pieces they signify are, if not always justified, mostly insightful. The Callino Quartet’s concert at St George’s Bristol (St G’s, if you like) presented three contrasting quartets, according to the tried and tested formula – “Classical” quartet, “Modern” quartet, interval, “Romantic” quartet – all with nicknames, but all transcending them and their implied content with their immense musical beauty and power.

Callino Quartet
Callino Quartet

We began with Franz Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet no. 53 in D major, “The Lark”. Haydn had written the group of six quartets that make up the Op. 64 after his “liberation” from the court of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy in 1790, and now that he was free as a bird, he wrote some music (intentionally or not) that sounded enough like one to earn the quartet its ornithological nickname. And indeed, the opening movement’s first violin part is reminiscent of a lark climbing its way joyfully out of the grounded verdancy of the lower parts. The whole work showcases the first violinist, and Sarah Sexton’s vibrancy and warmth of tone, combined with the precision and complete engagement of the three other players, ensured an ebullient opening to the concert. No little virtuosity was on show here, both individual (in Sexton’s tireless semiquavers in the final movement) and ensemble (witnessed in the complete control of pronounced dynamic contrast and the pristine rhythmic cohesiveness), and the clarity of sound, enhanced by the plethora of empty seats in the hall, was as refreshing as a walk in lark-ridden country hills.

In complete contrast with the refined joy of the Haydn, Janáček’s Quartet no. 1 “Kreuzer Sonata” is a work of sinister darkness and bitter irony. The piece takes its inspiration from Tolstoy’s book The Kreutzer Sonata, a tale of marital abuse, infidelity and eventual mariticide. Janáček’s musical response is as shocking as its muse, right from the off: the alien sound of muted sustained chords are stabbed at violently by a grotesque soliloquy in the cello, sounding like a frenetic fast-forwarded folk-song fragment. This cutting motif is passed around the quartet as the mournful mute chords are pierced and punctured again and again. It is a highly dramatic start to what is a short but intensely draining piece: the perfect example of the genius of the string quartet medium – using little to say an awful lot.

The schizophrenia of the first movement continues throughout the work; the second movement’s rapid start is followed by a more composed, almost stately passage that quickly disintegrates and is again dramatically violated by the bizarre sound of sul ponticello interjections in the second violin and viola. This technique recurs in the ensuing movement, the outbursts this time shattering haunting passages of close imitation between first violin and cello. Finally, that desolate sound of the muted lower instruments returns, prompting mournful, almost elegiac extended solo lines for the first violin, before more painful tension is created by the frantic passing of fragments of melody across static but pulsating harmony. But the outbursts of energy are unsustainable, and after a return to the chilling motif with which the work began, it collapses in on itself, exhausted.

Schubert’s String Quartet in A minor, “Rosamunde” made up the second half. Taking music from songs and the incidental music to the play by Helmina von Chézy, the quartet shows off Schubert at his very best: the indisputable master of harmony. Throughout, the mood swings like a weathervane, twisting one way and then the other by the slightest and simplest of harmonic devices. The famous second movement was tranquillity itself, and the third began with a captivating interchange in which the cello’s persistent three-note figure is responded to by the other players in close parallel harmony, creating an eerie and disarming atmosphere. The finale, though, is a charming, playful rondo, and the contrasting sections were navigated perfectly by an ensemble whose togetherness was uncanny. Schubert’s link into the coda, which begins as the movement does, is stark, barefaced genius.

Call them what you will, these pieces, performed with such emanating musicality, surpass all reference, however interesting these may be, to birds, books and plays.