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Haydn, Mendelssohn, Panufnik, Pintscher, Ravel, Sculthorpe, Woolrich: Eight String Quartets and a Piano Trio at the Cheltenham Music Festival 2009 (RJ)

Haydn is generally regarded as the inventor of the string quartet, and for his bi-centennial the organisers of the Cheltenham Music festival had the happy notion of inviting ensembles from around the world to play quartets by Haydn and other composers.

The line-up consisted of three string quartets from Britain (the Endellion, Smith and Barbirolli) plus the Borodin from Russia, Meta4 from Finland, the Royal Quartet from Poland, the Quatuor Diotima from France, and the Australian Quartet from Down Under.

But not all the music was for string quartet alone. The Endellion included in their programme The Audience, an uproarious poem by Wendy Cope with music by Roxanna Panufnik, which pokes fun at amateur conductors, performers and music critics. How dare she!

The Smith Quartet, on the other hand, celebrated American Independence Day focusing on Crumb, Glass and Steve Reich in a late evening concert which I was sorry to miss. The Borodin Quartet quickly sold out for its recital of Haydn, Beethoven and Shostakovich and I heard good reports of this event and also of the recital by Meta4, members of the current crop of BBC New Generation Artists.

I felt sorry for the Quatuor Diotima as they gave the British premiere of Matthias Pintscher's Study IV for Treatise on the Veil. The piece, consisting largely of sound fragments based on harmonics, was unrewarding to listen to and doubtless extremely difficult to play. Ravel's colourful Quartet was a much more pleasurable experience played as it was with great sympathy and a dose of Gallic flair.

The Antipodes was represented by the Australian Quartet who brought a fresh breezy tone of Haydn's Quartet in D minor, Opus 76 and plenty of Aussie exuberance to Mendelssohn's Quartet in D. It was particularly pleasing that they should bring some home-grown music with them in the shape of Peter Sculthorpe's String Quartet No 8. Fascinating sounds permeate this atmospheric work including paddy beating and bird song from the Australian outback.

The following day they teamed up with the Barbirolli to create the Ashes Quartet. As Australia and England were battling it out on the cricket field, the two quartets played together with impressive unanimity. Mendelssohn's Octet, performed with such verve and relish, made this the climax of a fortnight of chamber recitals.

Let's return to Haydn and the piano trio which bears his name, the Haydn Trio Eisenstadt. These three musicians deserved the place of honour at the Cheltenham Festival not only by dint of their fine playing, but also because of their remarkable project to celebrate Haydn's bicentenary. This involved commissioning 18 works for piano trio from 18 composers based in countries around the world and playing them, with other chamber music, over the course of three days.

Britain was represented by John Woolrich whose commissioned work, The Night will not Draw On, is inspired by E T A Hoffmann's description of Haydn's music. Woolrich admitted the weekend in Austria had been very stimulating but that he had been flagging towards the end. His new work was played alongside Haydn and Beethoven in the Haydn Trio's recital, which also included Haydn's settings of Welsh songs performed by the vivacious Elin Manahan Thomas. 

Roger Jones

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