Hugh Wood is a lucky composer. Not only did he have the pleasure of hearing his String Quartet No 5 premiered by its dedicatees, but he was also granted the rare privilege of hearing another performance of the work in the same concert. Before the Lindsays' second reading, he took part in a laconic but good-humoured conversation with their leader, Peter Cropper, in which it became clear that the composer feels that his music speaks for itself. It did, magnificently.
The five-movement fifth quartet was commissioned by Yorkshire Artspace and Music in the Round to celebrate the forthcoming opening in Sheffield of Persistence Works, the only purpose-built visual artists' studio in Britain. Chamber music has played a central role in Hugh Wood's output, suggesting a natural feel for architectural development, continuity and formal cohesion entirely in keeping with the nature of the commission.
The basic material of the opening allegro energico was straightforward and easily grasped, the result of a composer whose expressiveness is kept in check by a formidable organisational control. Initiated by a questioning single cello pizzicato, the first nocturnal scherzo was an implacable nightmarish quest of serious intent, only the insouciant payoff releasing the tension.
The central romanza was launched in the richly dark waters of Bergian late Romanticism, weathered a stormy central section and then faded away on the first violin's resigned harmonics.
Energy was immediately restored with a second nocturnal scherzo, light as air and fleet of foot. If the first was predatory, this one found the players on the run with its hunted, anxiously darting gestures.
A powerful, climactic finale contained the quartet's most memorable material, which became the subject of imaginative sequences and variations. The bravura, headlong conclusion set the seal on a direct and cogently argued discourse that unfolded with a freedom of expression and technical assurance harvested from long experience.
Having already premiered Hugh Wood's third quartet back in 1978, the Lindsays are evidently completely in tune with the composer's personal idiom. It is expressed in an atonal, occasionally serial, lyricism and laced with febrile Expressionist chromaticism. In both performances of the new work, the players rose to the considerable challenge of realising an abundance of superbly calculated effects and bold contrasts, which never drew attention to themselves but found their place within the superbly integrated whole.
The fifth quartet frequently challenged the Lindsays, pushing them to the limits of a virtuosity that was almost taken as read. It rewarded them with a passionate and logical work celebrating their distinctive brand of spontaneous music-making, anchored to a firm structural intelligence. I hope they will take this vital and eloquent work into their regular repertoire – it will undoubtedly reveal more of its secrets on closer acquaintance.