MUSIC / Bowing to tradition: Nicholas Williams on the medium and the message of the Bingham String Quartet

How many miles would you travel to hear a string quartet? 'Not many' might be the answer, even for some of our most dedicated music lovers. Yet with the Bingham Quartet honouring the 60th birthday of composer Alexander Goehr with two Purcell Room concerts featuring both his second and third string quartets over successive weekends, and now preparing to give the first performance of Priti Paintal's new quartet at the King's Lynn Festival later this month, July seems a good time to reconsider the challenge of this most sophisticated of genres.

Another response to the question might be: 'What type of string quartet?' Pioneered by the Kronos and widely imitated, a new breed has appeared in the last two decades, drawing on the resources of electronics and minimalism to exploit the atmospheric appeal of four solo strings playing in just intonation. The popularity of its concert manifestations notwithstanding, the real domain of this kind of music is private listening and the world of the recording studios. In spirit and technique, it is far removed from the classical view of the string quartet as the pinnacle of living, breathing chamber music.

The other type of quartet music, represented today by such composers as Alexander Goehr and Elliott Carter, continues to draw inspiration from the standard repertoire. Instead of creating a new ghetto of their own, works of this kind respond to placement in programmes emphasising continuity. Thus on Sunday, in the second of the Bingham Quartet's two concerts, a whole new range of feeling was exposed by the quotation, in the finale of Goehr's Third Quartet, of the Heiliger Dankgesang motif from Beethoven's A minor quartet, Op 132 - a resonance amplified by the ensemble's choice of the expansive E flat quartet, Op 127, rather than the tensile A minor, for the second half.

Casting back and forth between the not-so-ancient and the modern, the programme also revealed a fascinating difference in composers' uses of pizzicato effects. These were pioneered by Bartok, whose Second Quartet the Binghams played somewhat unevenly at the previous Saturday's recital. It was intriguing to compare that example with Goehr's employment of similar resources, not only in the Third Quartet, with snap pizzicato in the first movement dramatising the arrival of the slowed-down recapitulation, but also, alongside the Bartok on Saturday, in Goehr's own Second Quartet, dating from 1967.

Contemporary with his first major theatrical works, the opera Arden Must Die and the music theatre Triptych, the Second Quartet shares a similar urgency of language in the concrete presence of its gestures and the thread of tension binding all three movements together. In both the Goehr pieces, the Binghams chose relaxed tempi, allowing the semiquaver passages in the Third Quartet to speak with precision, and emphasising the obvious attention to detail that had gone into these meticulous performances. Another bonus was to stress the quicksilver changes of mood within these quartets, involving the seemingly inevitable modulations of feeling encompassed by an overall formal unity that is the essence of the classical manner - and therefore of the quartet medium in particular.

Offering the two quartets of Op 77 over successive weeks, the ensemble showed that nobody did this better than the father of the form, Joseph Haydn. The G major had poise and elegance; but the outstanding performance was of the second of the pair, the F major (Haydn's last quartet), on Sunday. The unruly contours of the Minuet complemented the gentle lights and shadows of the first movement. But the real pleasure was the Andante, based on a theme as simple as a nursery rhyme, which ambulates through the densest and the most magnificent quartet textures before arriving back where it started.

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
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.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk