As the first public act of their residency at Oxford University, the Villiers Quartet gave some quite fascinating works a consummate showing. Early 20th-Century European composers who finally got round to writing for such an ensemble, and the enigmatic slow movements they produced, had the spotlight.
First was Fauré's only string quartet, which he was unable to hear performed as it was his last work. The performance was measured and beautiful, the texture iridescent. The slow movement, constantly changing dynamically and harmonically, had great subtlety and was never allowed to become ponderous. All four players shared a pizzicato motif, but the Holywell Room's bright acoustic (and his frequency-range) made cellist Nick Stringfellow the star, with a special clarity and resonance to his every note. The quartet form had daunted the composer most of his life, Beethoven being such a hard act to follow, but this piece is very much worth hearing.
Delius' Quartet in E minor was the programme's centrepiece - the headline-grabber even if Elgar was the crowd-pleaser. The slow movement, Late Swallows, which has become one of his best known standalone pieces, was originally quite different. That first-performed version rested for almost a century in manuscript form in the British Library. Tonight was a rare presentation of the same, having been transcribed by Dr. Daniel Grimley of Merton who is currently working with the Villiers.
It does contain some entirely different material, and was excellently played. It formed a showcase for the ensemble's synchronicity, as themes were shared, motives passed around the four musicians, and sudden punctuations of pizzicato jumped into. Where the Fauré Andante shifted moodily like cloud-shadows on an English autumn day, the shifts in Delius's I found too capricious and rich. However, this is a matter of taste and no reflection on the performers, and the chance to hear the newly transcribed old version was very interesting.
Elgar's Quartet in E minor was definitely the piece with most contrast - it was during the last movement of the evening that the tempo went up noticeably! But Villiers' great internal communication (listening, watching one another) allowed them to bring maximum expressiveness out of the whole. If I were to nitpick, there was a slight hesitancy in starting new sections where some more 'attack' would have been bracing. Again, the slow movement is notable. Elgar scored something "that (had) never been done before" - who knows what. There are some theories about private musical ciphers, or a progressive elision of the theme on its recurrences. Answers weren't suggested to that question this evening in the enlightening programme notes, but light was thrown on the peculiar combination of structural lightness and harmonic sturdiness with which Elgar worked.
With a logic and flow to the programme, this great and sympathetic venue hosted an excellent ensemble who are to stick around until 2018. Public composition workshops and a New Works Competition are promised - if possible, hear what the Villiers have to bring to a varied repertoire in the new year.