1st concert – The Alkyona String Quartet, St. John’s Church Saturday October 28th 2023

On Saturday evening Keswick Music Society started its 23/24 season with a superb concert featuring a young London-based string ensemble, The Alkyona Quartet, in the Society’s new venue at St. John’s Church. KMS has been looking for a permanent home since the previous arrangement with the Theatre by the Lake, which had hosted the Society’s concerts for over 20 years, came to an end as a result of the Covid lockdowns. Since then KMS has held a number of concerts at St John’s, and it is excellent news that this has developed into a permanent relationship.

Playing much loved works by Purcell, Haydn, and Britten, and introducing most of the audience to works by two contemporary composers, the American Jessie Macdonald and the Anglo-Bulgarian Dobrinka Tabakova, The Alkonya Quartet offered the audience a perfectly-balanced programme of mainly English chamber music.

The Quartet started the evening with Purcell’s Fantasia No. 6, one of 13 he composed in 1680 for viol consorts. These fantasias require a firm but delicate touch to bring out their subtle blend of English and continental influences. The Alkyona quickly showed us what they can do, combining the music’s richly sonorous harmonies, anchored by the cello, with clear direction from the first violin over the phrasing of the more complex contrapuntal passages.

The main pre-interval work was Haydn’s G major string quartet, Opus 76 No. 1. Haydn, known as “Father” of the string quartet for good reason, sets performers all sorts of technical and interpretive challenges in doing justice to this substantial, complex work. The Alkyona rose to all of them, from their exquisite phrasing of the opening bars to Haydn’s typically subtle joke at the finish.

After the Haydn the audience were awarded Jessie Montgomery’s Strum as a pre-interval contrast, followed immediately post-interval by Dobrinka Tabakova’s The Smile of the Flamboyant Wings. The former was introduced by the First Violinist as ‘pushing the boundaries of the string quartet’, the latter by the Cellist as ‘very complex for us’. The audience could be forgiven failing to notice this, so enjoyable were both works and so apparently effortless were the performances. Compositions like these, in the hands of innovative young musicians like the Alkyona, surely point the way forward for classical music.

The culmination of the evening was Britten’s String Quartet No. 1 in D, opus 25. An early work, written in 1941 when Britten was 28 and living as a conscientious objector in the USA, it seemed already to presage much of Britten’s later style and soundscape and brought the concert to an enthusiastically applauded conclusion.

Keswick Music Society and the Alkonya Quartet provided us with an outstanding evening of serious music expertly played. Forthcoming concerts will feature the pianists Lara Melda on Saturday 25th November and the incomparable Dame Imogen Cooper on Saturday 13th January 2024. The people of Keswick and its neighbours are privileged that a community music society can continue to offer us music and performers of international quality.

R.F.A. Cooke