They began with an ideal opener, the short Phantasy Quartet by Frank Bridge. This immediately revealed their strengths, the subtle use of a wide dynamic range, the empathetic internal balance and their decisive approach colourfully projecting every nuance of this characterful music.
In contrast to these relatively mellifluous sounds came three of Harrison Birtwistle’s Nine Pieces for String Quartet. They had been carefully chosen to show their expressive range, from in-your-face aggression to remote uneasy calm. These qualities were fearlessly presented with superb control and commitment.
The Elgar Quartet is perhaps over-shadowed by his grander Piano Quintet but the Escher’s eloquent performance did much to restore its true position in the hierarchy. This is sometimes wistful music that hints at greater profundity than its surface charm suggests and the players caught the duality with full understanding of its Elgarian spirit.
The evening’s highlight was the Britten Third Quartet. The extraordinary febrile glow of the first movement was well caught and the two sardonic scherzos were colourfully despatched. Between them comes a slow movement that is dangerously ‘simple’ giving the players nowhere to hide. It was ravishingly done. In this Britten centenary year the last movement has special significance, written in the shadow of his impending death. This is music that I find almost unbearably moving, especially in a performance such as was given tonight and I know I was not the only audience member in tears by the end.