Right from the dramatic, assertive, unison opening statement of Beethoven’s string quartet, Op 18, No. 1 in F, one is conscious that the young composer had entered a different musical world from that of Haydn and Mozart.
Each of these had developed the string quartet beyond mere ‘entertainment music’ into a world which was constantly pushing the boundaries of structure and tonality, as well as technically challenging the players.
Beethoven made ever changing dynamic expression a vital element in his compositions.
Where his predecessors were mainly content with directions to gradually vary dynamics between very soft and very loud, Beethoven introduced dramatic, sudden changes, such as following loud music with very soft, or using sudden swells within a single chord etc., changes that radically alter the atmosphere and the importance of different elements.
These thoughts struck me while listening to the vibrant, superbly planned and executed performance of this, the most technically demanding, exciting, and moving of the six Op 18 quartets.
I felt as if I were hearing the work for the first time, such was the attention that the Vanbrugh Quartet paid to Beethoven’s directions, coupled with the absolutely perfect balance between the parts.
The drama that they brought to the final 13 bars of the passionate, tragic Adagio made this a performance to remember.
Each of the following works had either a story to tell or an atmosphere to create. I suspect that, musically, the Three Movements for String Quartet by Christopher Norby (b.1983) have little merit but they succeed admirably in creating atmosphere. Likewise, Donncha Dennehy’s ‘STAMP (to avoid erotic thoughts)’ is an extremely clever, audience-pleasing work, that relies on marvellously confusing rhythmic patterns for its effect and the Vanbrugh did it full justice.
Janacek’s ‘Kreutzer Sonata’ quartet, an astonishingly passionate work, tells a tragic story of a wife’s murder by her jealous husband. The Vanbrugh’s performance movingly captured the moods, the drama, and the essence of this magnificent quartet.