Alban Berg Quartet, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

This was a concert with a thesis: to illustrate "how Webern's mesmerising temporal compression was the natural outcome of Haydn's well-honed instincts for structural balance and Brahms' polyphonic ingenuity and expressive concision". And one musician who would have totally agreed with its implications was Anton Webern himself. An obsessively orderly and pietistic spirit, he not only held that "music is natural law as related to the sense of hearing", but that the severe serial configurations of his mature style represented the ultimate unification of the tonal and motivic techniques that had run through the Austro-German tradition since before Haydn.

Accordingly, the evening began with Haydn's String Quartet in D minor, Op 76 No 2: the so-called "Fifths" Quartet, after the jagged motif that haunts every level of its opening movement. With its grim Minuet in strict canon, this is Haydn at his most explicitly "logical" and the Alban Berg Quartet launched into it with every sign of fierce intent. Yet was there a suspicion that this celebrated outfit of 35 years standing were going through the motions of a well-routined reading rather than thinking the music anew?

Similar doubts emerged - at least in the first two movements - of Brahms' String Quartet in A minor, Op 51 No 2, which rounded off the evening. Tempi tended towards the hasty, with a casual skimping of upbeats particularly in the lilting second subject of the opening movement. Only with the echt-Brahmsian third movement - a melancholic little dance interspersed with sudden scurryings - and in the ebullient finale did the Alban Bergs seem to regain a sense of freshness, with a striking use of non-vibrato just before the end.

If partly by default, then, the intervening Webern really did emerge as the central focus of the evening. What we heard were the three works for string quartet he actually published (there were some earlier student works he did not), played in sequence without intervening applause to make, as it were, a three-movement multi-quartet, as he apparently envisaged - and, such is their concentration, still lasting together no more than 25 minutes.

Ranging from the Five Movements (1909), which still reverberate with a kind of acidulated, last-gasp romanticism, by way of the atomised language of the Six Bagatelles (1913), all tiny twitches and frissons, to the rigorous reconstructions of the String Quartet (1938), this is music demanding split-second precision from its players and unprecedented in-depth concentration from its listeners if its gestures and connections are to be articulated and grasped at all. Astonishingly, the communication on this occasion seemed almost complete. For here we had a large, edge-of-seat Queen Elizabeth Hall audience not only applauding Webern warmly, but coming out chattering how vividly radical it all still sounds. And so it does.

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