REVIEW / Serious expression: Stephen Johnson on the Lyric Quartet

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ORIGINALLY advertised as a four-work programme, the Lyric Quartet's Wednesday concert at St John's Smith Square materialised without Bartok's Third Quartet. Interesting as it would have been to have heard the Lyric's version, the programme was meaty enough without it. Anyway, a sequence of late Haydn, a challenging new piece, the Bartok and Janacek's Intimate Letters would have placed forbiddingly heavy demands on players and audience.

As it was, there were hints that towards the end of the evening the strain was beginning to tell. Intonation began to pitch and roll towards the climax of the second movement of the Janacek, and there were one or two alarming moments later on, but this evidently heightened the players' determination. The struggle intensified hair-raisingly in Janacek's finale, but the tender, confessional element was there too in abundance. With their strong feeling for rhythm, singing line and the value of silence, the Lyric Quartet showed that this music can make abstract musical and narrative sense at the same time - no suggestion of compromise or contrivance.

Musical argument may be paramount in Haydn's 'Sunrise' Quartet, but the Lyric Quartet managed to bring out plenty of colour, light-shade contrast and intense expression along the way. The striking major / minor dance / chant alternations in the trio section were beautifully done, as was the marvellous final winding-down of the Adagio - logical, yet unsettling. Despite the customary placing of the Haydn at the beginning of the programme, the Lyric Quartet showed no inclination to treat it as a mere overture, something to warm-up on before the 'serious' business begins. Gold stars to them all.

And if they have room on their designer lapels, perhaps the Lyric should each take another star for finding another interesting neglected British composer. It's 46 years since the young David Gow took a Cobbett Prize for his Clarinet Quintet, and his work-list now includes nine string quartets, but when the New Grove Dictionary was compiled he apparently was not thought worthy of an entry. His Sixth Quartet, written in 1986 and premiered in this concert by the Lyric Quartet, turns out to be a dynamic piece, chromatic in a manner which seems old-fashioned now, but which argues cogently and allows a surprising range of moods and colours.

Gow's device of constructing the Quartet in two interchangeable movements - so that whichever way you play it, one movement emerges from the other - has nothing gimmicky about it. For this performance the Lyric Quartet chose the slow-fast arrangement. It worked well, but it required no great mental strain to see how the Adagio might follow the Allegro, the slow fugue drawing together threads rather than preparing the ground for their violent loosening. It would almost have been worthwhile hearing the reversed version too, after the interval perhaps - but not at the cost of cutting the Janacek.