Sometimes it's hard to know what to do with a lunchtime. An hour for yourself: spend it stomping around in the park, or eating out of Tupperware in the corner of a college garden? Nice options are rather dependent on the weather and this first lunchtime of February - all grey skies, half-hearted rain and shivery boredom - needs all the help it can get. Pleasingly, the Villiers Quartet are on hand to perk it up with an intriguing mixed programme of new works and some exquisite Shostakovich, neatly fitting into an hour and lifting the mood of the rest of the day.
Opening, recent Oxford graduate Finn Shields' piece Neuvoton seems to owe as much to Jonny Greenwood's score for There Will Be Blood as the early 20th-century Russian greats. The title is 'irresolute' in Finnish, and the strings swim discordantly, searing and grinding against each other until from this unsettling fog, bit-by-bit, little melodies converge and solidify. It's an intriguing and sensitive piece, and the Villiers Quartet wring convincing nuances from it.
This is followed by Sophie Sparkes' Surges II, which follows a similar structure (though to very different effect): harmony growing from a soupy discordance, to perhaps Arvo Part-like effect towards the end.
Interestingly, Shostakovich's Quartet No. 3 in F major, which closes the programme, takes the opposite view. Written in 1946, the composer forged new movement titles for the piece: beginning with 'Blithe ignorance of the future cataclysm', we move through 'Rumblings of unrest and anticipation', 'Forces of war unleashed', 'In memory of the dead', and finally the cheery 'The eternal question: Why? And for what?' This is no walk in the park.
But it is a piece of astonishing invention and circumspection; the jaunty melodies of the first movement are actually somewhat revisited in the last, albeit altered and saddened by war. The Villiers Quartet perform splendidly and with great energy, making the Holywell Music Room resonate with Shostakovich's power. This was a lunchtime which was unusually enriched.