Haydn String Quartet in C, Opus 76 ‘The Emperor’ (1796)

Dohnányi String Quartet No 2 in D flat, Opus 15 (1906)

Beethoven String Quartet in C Opus 59 No 3 ‘Razumovsky’ (1806)

By Peter Williams

‘Rarely, rarely, comest thou, Spirit of Delight’: and even more rarely does one hear playing like that of the world-renowned Kodaly Quartet. How come they found themselves on a December afternoon in the Great Barn of a Jacobean Manor House in one of the remoter corners of the Welsh Marches? Well, in a large part, perhaps, thanks to the enterprise of Espressivo, this recital’s organisers, who, on learning that the Quartet would be playing in Gloucester this weekend, asked if they would also come to Hellens while on its doorstep, so to speak. A request that met with an enthusiastic ‘Yes’.

And there was an equally enthusiastic response - indeed, another rare spirit of delight - from a capacity audience, who fully justified Espressivo’s enterprise and courage. What the Ivor Gurney Hall in Gloucester - a 19th century schoolroom - is like your scribe knows not, but it is probably quite different in atmosphere from Hellens’ Great Barn, which holds only about 150 listeners when full to the niggardly satisfaction of the Fire Officer. This is an excellent size of audience for string quartets (quartets, after all, are written really just for the players - audiences are only there at all as eavesdroppers): but less ideal in terms of financial costs and income. Hence the mention of ‘courage’.

The afternoon started with a little surprise - in a semicircle on the low platform were four music stands, three chairs and, on the right, a padded low stool for, one supposed, the cellist. Except that when the musicians came on, the stool was claimed by the viola player and the cellist sat between him and the two violinists. This subtly alters the balance of the quartet, and the projection of its sound, and this was surely intentional. There was no hint of what the viola player thought about losing his traditional pivotal spot between the violins and the cello. For viola players generally think theirs is the best place to be in a quartet, able to relate now to the violins, now to the cello - perhaps that’s why so many composers, from Haydn and Mozart to Hindemith and Britten, preferred to play the viola?

The players were sombrely suited but forewarned us that their personalities, away from the music, were far from sombre, each sporting a silk necktie of different and brilliant hues - Guardsman Red, Indigo, Oyster and Lavender. But when the music started they matched their suiting, drawing no attention to themselves, whether by gesture or facial expression. We were aware not of the musicians, but only of the music coming out of them.

As to their playing, the initial sounds were like silk - smooth, precise, alive and exploratory.

Was this apparent tentativeness the players adjusting and responding to the ‘feel’ of the room, which they had briefly practised in when empty, without any audience? Or was it Haydn himself feeling his way - the master builder toying with the bricks of his trade, a few notes and intervals, the mortar of rhythm and dynamics, scraps to construct his symphonic edifice? For here was Haydn on his home ground. Napoleon might be a looming threat, but Haydn was Emperor of his art and, though the nickname of this quartet refers to the Emperor of Austria, it could as well be describing Haydn himself and his commanding position in the world of composition. After all, he had invented the String Quartet as a musical form and by 1796 he’d already written sixty-one of them over a period of some thirty-seven years. And as Haydn settled into this magnificent example, the players matched his every whim, every idea, every feeling. What a privilege to be an eavesdropper.

With the second work on the programme, the Quartet was on its own home ground. They are all Hungarians and all are products of the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest. The composer Ernö Dohnányi was also a student there. He was a formidable pianist - his teacher had been one of Liszt’s favourite pupils - and he also studied composition with a cousin of Max Reger, who was a devotee of Brahms. And Brahms championed Dohnányi’s music in Vienna. The music reflected all those influences.

The second of his three string quartets was written just 110 years after Haydn’s ‘Emperor’, and was an eye- and ear-opener to this audience, most of whom had probably never heard it before. Though the work appears somewhat diffuse in its material, in fact all three movements stem from the very opening motif - shades of Beethoven, another builder of mighty edifices from very few bricks, of whose piano music Dohnányi was a famed interpreter. This quartet made a profound impression on the audience and one would never hope to hear a more authentic or sympathetic performance. Some of the viola’s music was absolutely ravishing.

And so, after the interval, with its free mince pies, to Beethoven himself, and his 3rd ‘Razumovsky’ Quartet, written a hundred years before the Dohnányi and only ten years after the Haydn. But what had happened to music in those ten years? For one thing - Beethoven! Whose genius, at 36, was stretching its wings and taking tumultuous flight into new unimaginable realms. While the Austrian Haydn had feared Napoleon, the German Beethoven had admired him enough to write a Symphony to dedicate to his hero, only to find that hero had feet of clay. So the ‘Eroica’ became a generic hero and joined the ‘Appassionata’, these three quartets dedicated to the Russian Ambassador in Vienna, and other ground-breaking works of the period, in proclaiming music’s own revolution.

The Kodaly Quartet needed no histrionics in performing this music. They had it in their bones: they knew it as well as they knew each other and they focused all their energy on sharing it with a rapt audience. Only when they came to the encore, which the final applause hopefully insisted on, did they indulge in a little physical interplay (after all, there were those silk ties). The Shostakovich polka was a deliciously witty tease, adding Poland to the already heady mix of Germany, Austria, Hungary and Russia, and sending us out into the winter night with a smile on our faces and laughter in our hearts. Not to mention all the other emotions and reactions, and the mince pies.

Indeed, rarely, rarely do such things come to bless us.