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Lunchbreak concert, Cowdray Hall

Written by Alan Cooper

Reproduced with permission

The final concert of this season's official Lunchbreak Series (actually there are a few more to come) coincided with the last leg of the Edinburgh Quartet's epic journey through the Opus 33 String Quartets by Joseph Haydn in tandem with Benjamin Britten's works for the same medium.

I was reading one commentator's complaints that some programmers of string quartet concerts tend to regard Haydn as simply ''a warm-up man for either Mozart or Beethoven''. Haydn is of course vastly more important than that, even if the suggestion that he was the sole inventor of both the symphony and the string quartet is not entirely accurate either. Haydn certainly contributed massively to the expansion and development of both formats and so it was fitting that for this last concert in the series Haydn was put top of the bill and the leader of the Edinburgh Quartet Tristan Gurney gave us a nice introduction to Haydn's Opus 33 No.2 known affectionately as ''The Joke''.

The Edinburgh Quartet began this final concert in the series with Britten's short movement entitled Alla Marcia. It was composed in 1933 and is supposed to have been partly inspired by the book Emile und die Detective by Erich Kästner, a book for children which has been translated into many languages – we studied the French version at school. The music was revised several times by Britten, most notably as part of Les Illuminations but the version for string quartet was not published until 1983, some seven years after the composer's death. It is actually a superb piece of string writing, a fascinating pastiche of the traditional march format marked in places by slightly darker threads of humour. It is therefore quite unlike Britten's other string quartets which as we heard over the series are starkly serious. This was therefore an ideal introduction to Haydn's most exemplary adventure in humour in music and the performance of the Alla Marcia by the Edinburgh Quartet captured every facet of the music from bright innocent good humour to just a touch of sardonic wit.

Haydn's Quartet, ''The Joke'', is possibly one of his most difficult to play successfully. Ask any actor and they will tell you how much more difficult it is to play comedy than tragedy. There is a joke about a man sentenced to life in prison. On the first night there, after lights out, his cellmate suddenly shouts out a number and the whole wing resounds with laughter. Other numbers are shouted out and everyone howls with laughter. The new inmate asks what is going on and is told that everyone knows all the jokes so they just shout numbers that represent the jokes. The new boy asks if he can have a go. He shouts ''Twenty!'' but nobody laughs. ''Thirteen, sixteen, seven'', still nobody laughs. He asks his cellmate what is wrong. ''Oh!'' he replies, ''It's the way you tell them''.

In preparation for the concert I went on the internet and listened to several performances of the Haydn Quartet and many either left me puzzled or even annoyed. It was not until I came across a performance by the Casals Quartet that the penny dropped and I finally got the joke in the final movement. Timing was everything and also the way in which the final bars are tossed at the audience. Once again, ''It's the way you tell them.

How did the Edinburgh Quartet do? Let's begin with the opening movement. Here was gloriously sunny playing from all four members of the quartet. Tristan Gurney was fantastic. There are several virtuoso gestures from the leader in this movement and these were splendidly done but in addition his almost nonchalant rhythmic turns in the main theme added to the sense of good humour in the music. Several of the other performances I listened to were very straight faced by comparison.

The word Scherzo in Italian can be translated as joke and in this movement Haydn and the Edinburgh Quartet took us onto the dance floor. The scherzo itself stamped along joyfully as if the dancers were having a good laugh at what they were doing. Interestingly enough, in the trio section, the Casals Quartet suggested that the dancers were a bit drunk. This is portrayed by the sliding of the principal violin. The Edinburgh Quartet avoided this and instead Tristan Gurney gave the slides a remarkable sense of elegance. The fun was still there but the clownish element was avoided and I thought it worked very well.

The slow movement Largo sostenuto was beautifully done opening with duets for cello and viola and then the two violins soon joined by the cello. The incisive chords and the music which followed suggested string music which could have been written as accompaniment for an opera aria, or at least so I thought.

So to the finale; would it work? Yes it did, and triumphantly at that. To begin with, the Edinburgh Quart like the Casals obeyed Haydn's instruction of Presto. Some of the other performances were simply too slow and as a result the humorous gesture at the end fell flat on its face. However the final ''joke'' needs more than just tempo; timing of the silences has to be perfect before the quartet hits us in the face with Haydn's punch line. The Edinburgh Quartet were right on cue. Well done!

By the way, the new second violin was unable to play owing to another engagement arranged before he joined the Quartet. He was replaced by Clara Biss who was splendid. Here as in the other concerts this season the Edinburgh Quartet was on tip top form.

Reproduced with permission