Review: Villiers String Quartet, Derby Chamber Music

It’s always refreshing to find a string quartet prepared to go out on a limb in terms of repertoire even if only slightly. So no Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven or Schubert from the Villiers Quartet on this occasion.

Instead, they began with Tchaikovsky’s Quartet No 1 – not particularly out-of-the-way, given the popularity of its second movement, but not the first work that comes to mind in terms of core quartet repertoire, either.

They brought out the chant-like character of the opening particularly well, finely contrasted with the energy elsewhere in the opening movement.

An eloquent account of the second movement made effective use of the pauses and silences that punctuate it, and there was plenty of heft to the dance rhythms in the third movement. Tuning problems in the first movement and the finale were merely passing distractions.

It is tempting to describe Delius’s String Quartet as good Delius but not a good quartet. The writing is too cluttered, with not enough air in the texture.

The Villiers Quartet clearly believes in it, though, and took what opportunities there were to lighten the tone in the second and third movements, giving a warmly affectionate performance of the third, known as ‘Late Swallows’. They even managed to bring some cohesion to the finale, where Delius often seems to lose his way.

The most serious-minded of Brahms’s three published quartets, Op 51 No 1 in C minor, benefited from a relatively low-key opening to what turned out to be a wiry, muscular reading of the first movement.

Sensitive handling of the second movement’s more intimate, confiding passages contrasted with the dogged stoicism brought to the outer sections of the third movement, with a suitable lightening of mood in the trio section.

Impetus in the finale was well maintained, with a satisfying sense of closure as the work came full-circle at the end.

By Mike Wheeler