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Lunchbreak concert, Cowdray Hall

Written by Alan Cooper

Reproduced with permission

This was the penultimate concert in the series exploring all the Op. 33 Quartets by Joseph Haydn in tandem with the complete works in the quartet medium by Benjamin Britten.

Today's choice of Haydn's Quartet Op. 33 No. 3 known as "The Bird" along with Britten's Three Divertimenti, both basically light-hearted works, was ideal for a Lunchbreak Concert; not that the Lunchbreak audience is not capable of appreciating heavier material, but enjoyment of the music is an important priority for these concerts. From what we read in the superb programme notes by Dr Roger Williams, the audience in 1936 did not seem to have the same opinion as Thursday's more enlightened crowd about the Britten, with the composer writing in his diary, "received with sniggers and in a pretty cold silence", but more of that later.

Although Haydn's Quartet is nicknamed The Bird in the singular, there seemed to be quite a number of birds in there. I am not sure whether Haydn was familiar with The Four Seasons by Vivaldi but with this Quartet, (although the music is not at all similar in theme or structure), Haydn achieves an equal brilliance in musical painting as the earlier composer and all done perfectly within the classical quartet structure. Tristan Gurney's birdsong against the chug-chug chirping of the other players was colourful indeed. In the Scherzando, the slightly sombre opening erupted brilliantly into charming bird life in the middle section. Even in the lovely slow movement, the songlike playing of the leader against the repeated notes of the second violin and later the rest of the ensemble suggested birdsong to me – or was this just a case of when you go actively looking or listening for something you are likely to find it? Certainly the birds were definitely back in full flurry in the brilliantly played finale. Haydn asks his performers to play "presto" and the Edinburgh Quartet gave him everything he asked for – a stunning performance.

Why did the nineteen thirties audience not like Britten's Divertimenti? I dare say the string swoops at the beginning would have been quite enough to offend tender sensibilities. A couple of years of Sound Festival concerts would have been kill or cure for these people. For us today, we can appreciate the delightful touches of humour that Britten has written into this music. Good humour is not something that I immediately associate with Britten but here he matches the genial mood of Haydn nicely. In the opening March, the swoops, high harmonics and pizzicati make this a sort of caricature of a march and the same is true of the Waltz which was played with a delightfully light touch by the members of the Edinburgh Quartet. Another word for a caricature is a burlesque and this is the title that Britten gives to his final movement. I suppose you can't really have a burlesque of a burlesque but in this movement Britten brings light-heartedness and wit right to the surface and in their performance the Edinburgh Quartet was right up there with him – first class!

Reproduced with permission