★★★★★ British quartet displays all the characters of a fine vintage wine.

Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House
October 4

Having battled the Grand Final crowds and negotiated Sydney’s newly transformed public transport system on a blistering hot Sunday afternoon, what better way to cool down than with some Haydn quartets?

And not your jovial elegant pieces dashed off as stocking fillers for the more weighty stuff on the programme but two of his finest and most substantial quartets performed by an ensemble which knows its Haydn inside out.

In fact the London Haydn Quartet – violinists Catherine Manson and Michael Gurevich, violist James Boyd and cellist Jonathan Manson, all of whom have flourishing careers outside the group – was formed in 2001 purely with the intention of exploring this composer’s 70-odd quartets and performing them as Haydn would have heard them, using baroque bows and gut strings.

Gradually the works of Haydn’s pupil Mozart crept in to their repertoire and, when they started uncovering the manifest delights of the late quartets, that other pupil Beethoven demanded to be included.

Hence the programme for this latest in the Utzon series – one of the Prussian quartets, the Op. 50 No 2, the sixth from the Op. 76 set and the meat in the sandwich, Beethoven’s second quartet from the Op. 18 set in which he pays tribute to Haydn and Mozart and signals that things are about the change.

The 200-seat Utzon room is the perfect venue to hear the subtle nuances and complexities of period performance.

The first thing you notice with the London Haydn Quartet is the wonderful warmth of tone that gut strings produce on fine old instruments.

There may have been a little extra tuning to cope with the humidity and climatic adjustments inevitable in trans-world travel but it was nothing too intrusive – and well worth the results which displayed all the complexities and characters of a fine vintage wine.

Manson has the deftest of touches but can generate the power and passion when needed and the whole group has spectacular attack and articulation. Their ensemble playing is matchless – witness the skipping song of the Menuetto from the Op. 76 which always calls to this listener’s mind the hopping of hedgerow birds and the sound of church bells. Most importantly they all seem to be having a great deal of fun.

The cheery Beethoven work also opened out like lovingly decanted claret under the bows of this Dutch-British foursome (Gurevich being from Holland).

Intensity, dynamic and attention to detail were all spot-on, Catherine Manson leaning forward in the stop-start allegretto from the Prussian work which closed the programme.

Violist Boyd and cellist Manson provided some exciting low-down grunt to underpin the soaring violins in this premium quality recital.


London Haydn Quartet plays at Melbourne Festival on October 9

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