MUSIC / A modern master: Jan Smaczny welcomes the premiere of Hugh Wood's latest string quartet

RADIO 3 has had more than its fair share of brickbats of late, especially concerning its policy on contemporary music. On the one hand there are those who find its choice of repertoire too outre, on the other there are those who find it completely lacking in controversy. The happy medium rarely hits the headlines, and because of this it deserves the occasional celebration. The series of lunchtime and evening concerts offered by BBC Pebble Mill, available to anyone with a radio, may not command the limelight in the manner of Symphony Hall, but is, nevertheless, a mainstay of Birmingham's cultural life. It also does sterling service for contemporary music, with a premiere built into every season.

Hugh Wood is hardly an outsider as far as British modern music is concerned, nor could he be described as being at the forefront of the avant-garde. Any suspicion, however, that his music might seem neither one thing nor the other was dispelled by the premiere on Wednesday of his powerful Fourth String Quartet. The composer's own choice of a prelude, Beethoven's Quartet in F minor, Op 95, might easily have sunk the new work before it had set sail. Op 95 may be short, but it packs the kind of punch that can make other quartets seem prolix by comparison. Passion, intensity and sheer hilarity are shoe-horned into a work lasting barely 20 minutes. The Chilingirian Quartet did well by this piece, notwithstanding some uncertain intonation in the upper levels, but their thoughts must have been on the new work, completed less than three weeks before the concert.

Clearly they need to play it again a few more times before it settles (there is a repeat performance at Brighton Festival on Sunday), but this premiere had the full measure of the work. Wood does not make a fuss about this quartet - there is no programme, no catchy title to titillate the sensibilities. It is an abstract, four-movement work that both challenges and rewards comparison with the established canon; the harmony is dissonant and frequently abrasive, but never abstruse; and the musical language is entirely his own. There are hints of early Schoenberg, Mahler and, in the rich textures of the slow movement, Dvorak, but there is never any sense that this is a composer attempting to measure up to anyone else's agenda. Modernism and post-modernism may worry the commentators and certainly send an unhealthily large number of composers into a flurry; given the confidence with which this new work presents itself, these terms might never have existed. While the musical syntax has its own identity, the work's rhetoric would not be unfamiliar to any composer since Beethoven.

Perhaps Wood's greatest achievement in the new quartet is its fast music. The Introduzione does not grope its way into being, it slams straight into the argument. The only slight disappointment is an overlong cadenza for the first violin acting as a bridge into the exhilarating Scherzo; it seems to dissipate what the composer himself calls the quartet's 'corporate personality' built up so impressively in all four movements.

The best string quartets manage the seemingly impossible feat of marrying the abstract with the passionate. In recent years, the genre seems to have been on the retreat. This new quartet shows the medium has abundant life and, more locally, that Beethoven's Op 95 is an act that can be followed.

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