St Lawrence String Quartet

John Adams's new piece, String Quartet, is unusual among his output for two reasons. It is his first proper essay in the genre – though a number of works use similar forces – and it comes unaided by a wacky title. This should not suggest any absence of the wit and character that populates and occasionally overpopulates Adams's work, but it does point to a larger seriousness of purpose.

This performance, by the quartet for which it was written, was its first in the UK. It is clear Adams knows his players, feeding them the kind of strongly variegated material on which they flourish. The familiar pounding rhythms are there, of course, which the players duly pounce upon. But it is the constant trade between the machine-like aspect and the fragile sparks of something more human that elevate the music and its players.

Pieced together like a series of chain reactions, the individual lines set each other off, either fading out forgotten, building to something new, or opening out on to enormous wide spaces such as the wonderful vista with which it closes.

Similar tricks are at work in Ravel's only string quartet which, together with Haydn's Op 54/2, made up the concert's first half. But Ravel didn't so much write for the four instruments as orchestrate for them, marshalling a range of effect, colour and tone that is always staggering in live performance. Where the SLSQ fell down was in needlessly exaggerating every tiny gesture, to the detriment of the flow. Still, their emphatic approach worked well in the Haydn, and – from a group who have spent 20 years refining their youthful exuberance – was not unexpected.

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