Oxford Coffee concerts, inaugurated in 1986 and held in the beautiful surroundings of Holywell Music Room, have become an institution in Oxford. Almost every Sunday of the year, visiting musicians and musical groups entrance their audience with a wide variety of music.
Today's offering was the Emperor Quartet, formed in 1992, and their CVs are quite impressive. They have performed all over the world and their lively and energetic performance today shows why they are so popular. They performed two very different pieces, Haydn's String Quartet, Op 76 'Sunrise' and then Debussy's 'first' string quartet.
'Sunrise' was written towards the end of his long life, around the end of the 1790s: the program notes tell us that these quartets were written for small select gatherings but when he wrote them, he had just returned from London where he had experienced performing to large, paying audiences. The 'Sunrise' has more depth and resonance than some of his earlier, lighter music. The beautiful second movement, in particular, has a gentle romantic quality and is unusually slow for Haydn while the third movement is a minuet and you can easily picture the swirling skirts of couples dancing to this melody. The fourth movement is also upbeat, gathering momentum throughout and ending with an unusually long coda. Maybe Haydn was thinking of the large London audiences when he penned this.
In contrast to Haydn, quartets were not a main part of Debussy's musical output: in fact this was the only string quartet that he wrote. There are various opinions as to why he wrote it when he did, taking time out of his work on 'Prélude à l'Après-midi d'un Faune' to do so. One theory is that it was some sort of tribute to Franck, (who had just written his own string quartet), in spite of their uneasy relationship. Whatever his motivation, he wrote a quartet to be remembered and it seems a pity that he never wrote the second one he had planned. As with 'La Mer', the quartet has a central theme which is developed in different ways in the four movements and by all four instruments at different times. The pizzicato part of the second movement reminded me once again, if I needed reminding, why it is so good to see live performances. Recordings nowadays are excellent, but to see the interplay of four performers at times like that makes the music even more memorable – especially when the players are so obviously enjoying the challenge of the music.