The Ruisi Quartet with Finlay Bain (horn), Sophie Robertshaw (bassoon), Elaine Ruby (clarinet) and Rodrigo Moro Martin (bass) – The fourth Coffee Concert 2013 – 2014

Brighton Dome Corn Exchange, Sunday January 19, 2014

Sunshine, no wind, and a new young quartet, whose leader is still a Masters student at the Royal College of Music – and he looks the oldest of the four. So how does the next generation play Haydn? Somewhere between baroque and romantic; if anything nearer the baroque. They used little vibrato, and played unslurred notes in a detached ‘baroque’ way. But they followed Haydn’s dynamics which are not baroque at all. So, in the first movement, they brought out the forte that Haydn requested for the tumultuous second theme against a background of mezzo forte and piano.

Haydn’s opus 20 No.2 was written in 1772, only 22 years after the death of Bach and 27 years before Beethoven’s opus 18 quartets. So it may well be historically correct to play it this way. The more important question, however, is, did it work? Yes, I think it did. The lack of vibrato brought out the stillness and sparseness of the piece, above all in the cello solo at the start of the second movement. In this they were aided by the Corn Exchange acoustic. When empty it’s a nightmare for the players, as the quartet found when they practiced earlier in the morning, but with an audience it becomes resonant, warm but with no fudge: every sniff can be heard. So this sparse way of playing sounded even more austere than usual. If I had to chose one way of playing Haydn I don’t think this would be it – I like a more lyrical flowing style – but I’m pleased to have heard this quartet and feel they brought out new aspects of the piece. They also coped with the considerable technical difficulties, although am I right to say they came apart for a moment in the extraordinarily difficult fugue that is the last movement?

After the interval the Ruisi were joined by other students of the Royal College of Music for Schubert’s Octet. This hasn’t in the past been a favourite of mine: I’ve heard it played too often where the strings have been swamped by the wind and brass. This performance was a revelation. The clarinet set an opening mood of delicacy that characterised the whole performance. Strings, wind and horn blended together with an intimacy that was exquisite. All eight players phrased as though they had been playing together all their lives. In fact they achieved this on just three rehearsals. Joy and anguish, tenderness and high spirits, they were all there in this understated, refined, masterly performance.

Andrew Polmear