By John Rushby-Smith

Unbelievably, more time has elapsed since Bartók’s Second String Quartet was written than between it and the late Beethoven quartets whose mantle it so clearly inherits. Like late Beethoven it is overtly modernistic in the way it stretches musical language and challenges the old order, and it set a standard for the twentieth century that few composers in the medium have been able to emulate since.

In the inaugural concert of the Malvern Concert Club’s new season the Endellion Quartet met Bartók’s other challenge – that of performance – with a maturity that drew the audience into the work, explaining its structural intricacies through focussed playing alone and rendering redundant the showy athletic gestures of youth. Consequently the performance had great depth. The players’ virtuosity in the tumultuous central allegro was nothing short of brilliant and the pensive intensity of the final movement was intensely moving.

If Bartók’s work was the meat in the sandwich, the bread and butter came in the form of Haydn’s witty “Lark” Quartet and Beethoven’s Razumovsky No.2. The Haydn got off to a rather shaky start with some surprising lapses in intonation, but once things settled down it received an ebullient performance that befitted its status as a vehicle for Johann Tost, the violinist who commissioned it, and for Andrew Watkinson, the Endellion’s first violin who stepped into Tost’s shoes with panache.

The danger in finishing such a programme with the Beethoven was that after the Bartók it could so easily have sounded tame. That it didn’t had more to do with Beethoven than with the performance. The first three movements were drawn well enough, if somewhat routinely, but the finale was simply too fast for its own good; precision suffered, and by the time the pìu presto coda arrived there was simply nowhere to go other than to make a mad dash for the line.

Significantly it was the Bartók that drew by far the warmest applause of the evening. Perhaps one day the tradition of putting “modern” music before the interval and then bringing everyone back to revere yet another performance of an established “classic” will surrender to a bolder view. The Endellions are noted for their dedication to new music. Could this have been an opportunity missed?