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.

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015