Being taken on mind-blowing, heavenly orbits by music like this is an exhilarating, life-affirming experience that can scarcely be believed. As the awestruck audience marvels at truly phenomenal compositions played with passionate togetherness of heart and soul and superhuman mastery of countless technical challenges, it’s a miracle everyone isn’t leaping up in breathless ecstasy and admiration every few minutes with cries of, “Wow! Wow! Bravo!”

First, Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet (two violins, viola, and cello), completed in 1914 and revised in 1918. With disjointed, spiky outbursts, sawings, brayings, plucks, clashes, (glorious) discords and sudden changes of pulse and direction from grating and aggressive through to smooth and soothing, Stravinsky revolts against the traditional quartet of singing conversations between instruments. This anti-quartet, as some see it, is a short one, but it’s a stunning masterpiece of experimental soundscapes that gel beautifully and excite massively. Stravinsky later gave the three movements titles: Dance (with folksy viola drone), Eccentric (a jerky, jokey movement, bizarrely inspired by music hall comic, Little Tich) and Canticle.

Replicating and multiplying the audience’s infinite appreciation and amazement at the Stravinsky was Shostakovich’s String Quartet No 3 Op 73, a real show-stopper of a masterpiece. Written as Stalin’s purges on artists and intellectuals were getting underway in a dire attempt to impose ideological uniformity and compliance on them all, this work, like many of his works, was withdrawn from public performance shortly after its premiere. Rather than a conventional four movements there are five, all packed with the delicious, unmistakeable Shostokovian ingredients that characterise his symphonies – familiar melodic phrases and intervals, strident choppings and halted hoppings, discordant agitation, melodic dissonance, assertive pulses, masterful pluckings and soarings, and intense beauty and energy.

The composer thought the piece one of his best compositions. Quite right, too, for it’s breathtakingly magnificent, while the musicianship required is nothing short of miraculous. Driving the exhausting emotions (for composer, players and audience alike) is the theme of war, in which a calm normalcy of life is pierced by unrest and trepidation until the full forces of war march in, leaving behind intense pain, grief and mourning, and the bewildering question, why? A vast range of moving, vibrant tones and textures from utmost stridency to touching, intimate, heart-rending delicacy come into play. The tender gentleness, beauty and delicacy of Ben Navarro’s violin is particularly poignant, while the togetherness of energy and whole-hearted spirit and emotion of all four players is amazing, with Gemma Rosefield on cello, Rachel Roberts on viola and (on this occasion) Natalie Klouda on second violin. No wonder frayed bow strings fly fast and furious!

The finale was Beethoven’s final composition, String Quartet Op 135, completed just months before his death in 1827. More simple and concise than works before it and rumbling less with deep, dark, turbulent, ongoing drama there’s a great deal of unique interest and playfulness in this piece. Bringing pleasing surprises, strident ferocity and urgent questions with a repeated, emphatic answer, it also luxuriates in a glorious, extended serenity of peace and relaxing tranquillity while eventually ending with a triumphant flourish.

Stunning pieces all, played with startling virtuosity – though exhausting, too, especially given that the players, along with crowd-pleaser, multi-genre saxophonist and clarinettist Aga-Serugo-Lugo, also spent the morning entertaining and inspiring 7to 11 year olds with a programme of fun, participation and top quality music, both ancient and modern. Medals all round!

Eileen Caiger Gray

For more information visit the Music In The Round website by following this link.