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Review of the Endellion String Quartet

The Endellion String Quartet’s current season continued at a packed West Road Concert Hall on Wednesday evening with a performance of 3 further works from the complete Beethoven string quartets the Endellions are giving in farewell to their Cambridge residency of almost 30 years.

The Quartet is not playing them in strict chronological order but instead, as they’ve announced, choosing pieces of contrasting character from different periods of Beethoven’s career, allowing us to hear them in the context of one another and, appropriately in the 250th anniversary of his birth, to further encourage us to appreciate the sheer range, fertility and freshness of his imagination.

The first to be performed at Wednesday’s concert was No. 6 in B flat (1798), the final one from the earliest set, Opus 18. The quartet delivered the complete range of this work immaculately, the melodic second movement succeeded by a very active third, with one instrument following hard upon another to give a playful cascading effect. A profoundly melancholy adagio modulated into a bright finale, full of sudden pauses and accelerations leading to an effervescent conclusion.

The Endellion String Quartet. (28001666)
The Endellion String Quartet. (28001666)

The Opus 18 quartets show the influence of the classical style of Mozart and Haydn, but No. 16 in F Opus 135 (1826), Beethoven’s last completed composition, is of an entirely different nature. The opening movement makes a very strong statement, although at one point each instrument seems to be going its own way before being pulled back into harmonious order.

The scherzo (Italian ‘joke’) lived up to its name with all manner of rhythmic irregularities and surprises right up to the end where a loud chord dispelled an anticipated quiet conclusion. The Endellions superbly showcased the work’s revolutionary inventiveness.

The final quartet after the interval, No. 10 in E flat, Opus 74, belongs to the culmination of Beethoven’s middle period. It is popularly known as ‘The Harp’ because of the striking pizzicato exchanges between instruments in the first movement. The name was actually given to it by the composer’s publisher and, like ‘Emperor’ by which the 5th piano concerto is known, has remained with it ever since.

In each of their concerts the Endellion String Quartet show how capable they are of rising to levels of pure sublimity, and in this one it was surely in their spellbinding performance of the ‘Harp’ adagio with its deeply affecting tranquillity, pointing so clearly to those late quartets to come.

Speaking personally, my thoughts on leaving such concerts are always the same. I can imagine trying to apply paint to a canvas, perhaps turning my hand to a poem, or even having a bash at a novel. But music composition seems to belong to another, altogether mysterious, country to which most people can only dream of access. And as for those top-flight performers of it, surely they’re a race apart.

There are three more Endellion Beethoven concerts to come, 26 February, 22 April and 20 May. Sadly, the rest is silence.


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