A whole host of high calibre string quartets descend upon Oxford this week, not least in the case of my concert of the week: The Ehnes Quartet (Thurs 6th Feb, 7:30pm, St John the Evangelist). After Mendelssohn’s exuberant First Quartet, the programme features works by Bartók and Suk, both composers influenced by central European folk music. Ehne’s ensemble will conclude with Ravel’s wonderful Quartet in F. Written when the composer was just 28, this quartet, with its striking and paradoxical combination of filigree delicacy and lively energy, ranks among Ravel’s finest works. This group was formed by Canadian violinist James Ehnes in 2010, a player whose sparkling virtuosity and musicality is widely recognised. When he was supposed to be performing a concert of chamber music at the Wigmore Hall in London last month, Ehnes, having flown to England, arrived to find that his duet partner was ill and that his suitcase hadn’t arrived. He borrowed a suite and tie and offered a solo recital of music by Bach instead, with little to no notice. “If I hear nothing better in 2014 I still will have done well,” exclaimed a breathless Fiona Maddocks, writing for The Guardian. Ehnes will be returning to the Wigmore with this quartet for a recital to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3. This concert will feature the same works by Bartók and Suk, but you can hear them played by this talented group of players first here in Oxford.
Continuing their project to explore Beethoven’s entire output in this medium, The Elias Quartet return to Oxford this week (Fri 7th Feb, 7:30pm, Sheldonian Theatre). This concert showcases some of the rightly famous jewels amongst Beethoven’s string quartets. The late quartet with which the programme ends (Op. 130) is a particularly important milestone in the history of the genre, arguably in the history of Western music. The Elias Quartet will also the Große Fuge, which was originally the finale of Op. 130. Beethoven’s Quartets are the central pillar of the repertoire, a constant point of reference for any composer in the genre. For Stravinsky, the Große Fuge was “an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever”. Indeed, Mendelssohn’s First Quartet, performed by the Ehnes Quartet the night before, demonstrates particularly well how composers after Beethoven were forced to confront the legacy of his monumental achievements.
My final foursome of string players this week is The Hieronymus String Quartet (Sun 9th Feb, 3pm, Holywell Music Room). The same central composers of the repertoire feature: like the Ehnes Quartet, they perform music by Bartók and, like the Elias, they will play a late Beethoven Quartet. This international group of players met in 2011 at the Guildall School of Music and Drama. Representing the Guildhall at the Cavatina Intercollegiate String Quartet Competition in 2012, the Hieronymus Quartet were awarded both the main and audience prizes. This is a fantastic chance to hear a young quartet of great promise.
For something quite different to these chamber music concerts dominated by earnest, nineteenth- and twentieth-century composers, consider New Chamber Opera: Cavalli’s La Calisto (Fri 7th & Sat 8th Feb, 8pm, New College Chapel). The libretto, sung in an English translation in this performance, recounts a story based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The eponymous nymph Calisto finds herself at the centre of a struggle between the gods Jupiter and Juno. The ensuing opera takes in a spectrum from raucous humour to radiant musical beauty. Cavalli’s La Calisto, first heard in Venice in 1651, will be sung by a talented group of student singers from across the University.