Barbican String Quartet

Concert date: 18 February 2024
Reviewed by: JRC

The Barbican String Quartet after their performance for NADSA Concerts

Sponsored by The C & M Pike Trust

A heady experience

Just a glance at the website of the Barbican String Quartet is enough to realise that this young group is something very special. Based between London and Munich, their recent concert engagements span many European countries and North America. Given such pre-knowledge, one’s expectations were high for last Sunday’s concert in Newton Abbot. It only took a few seconds, of the warm cello’s resonance growing into the full quartet in Haydn’s B flat Major Op 50 No 1, for the whole audience to be gripped. Such immediacy is unusual. What was even more unusual was that this sophisticated audience seemed held in this state, not only through movement breaks [where were the usual coughs and shuffles?] but also through to the Beethoven, and Berg!

Haydn maybe a light-hearted way to start a concert, but the meticulous attention to detail, such as the seamless handing from one instrument to another, would surely have pleased the composer. In the Adagio we had breath-stopping pauses, whereas the Menuetto was very dancy and lively. We, the audience, were well guided by the performers’ stage-presence to cope with Haydn’s humorous false ending.

Alban Berg’s String Quartet Op 3: I must admit that I am not at ease with the genre of the Second Viennese School. I know the twelve tone technique and atonal composition has been around for well over 100 years. Certainly it has been effectively used by Scott Bradley, in his score for Tom and Jerry, to produce a sense of ‘out-of-this- world’ progressions to build tension; but I am too firmly in this world to encompass an atonal Universe! However, we owe a debt of gratitude to the Barbican Quartet for programming this work, and performing it with such sensitivity and conviction. Obviously they see forms and patterns still mostly alien to me. I was just left aching with envy that they can inhabit a parallel Universe of such musical colours.

It was a masterpiece of programming to put Beethoven’s String Quartet No 15 in A minor Op 132 [a ‘late’ quartet’] after the Berg. Suddenly this late ‘difficult’ composition seemed reassuringly familiar. The first and second movements included Beethoven’s great richness of diversity with phrases growing and receding, and even mimicked bagpipes reappeared. But the third movement has to take pride of place: a serene dawn wonder with later bursts of exuberance at the joy of living. The final presto movement left the audience in a state of mesmerised euphoria. As one audience member quipped “you couldn’t spoil that with an encore”.

The concert was a heady experience, one just runs out of superlatives for its description. I wish that Haydn, Berg, and a young Beethoven had been in the audience; none of them probably heard such a good performance of their works. I look forward to hearing the Barbican String Quartet again in Newton Abbot or London, or indeed anywhere.

This concert was sponsored by the C & M Pike Trust

NADSA Concert, Sunday 18th February 3.00pm at The Courtenay Centre, Newton Abbot.