Over a year ago Huddersfield Music Society’s canny programme planners chose the unknown Villiers String Quartet to give the closing concert of their 2014-15 season, and since then the Villiers have forced their way to prominence.
Last month they made their debut BBC Radio Three recording, and also won a competition to become Oxford University’s quartet-in-residence for the next three years. Their Huddersfield Music Society concert this week showed why.
They began with Britten’s Three Divertimenti, character pieces intended for entertainment with no philosophical pretensions. The March has glissandi, colourful harmonics and bristling rhythms with hints of Stravinsky. The Waltz is more traditional with a touch of the English pastorals about it, and the Burlesque is a tiny masterpiece of vibrant rhythms and contrasting colours.
The Villiers played them with much wit and made the Burlesque’s false ending and cheeky coda positively Haydnesque.
The rumbustious and forthright tone they deployed in the Britten became, in Beethoven’s Op. 18 No. 6 Quartet, more restrained and polite, though still fulsome. It is one of Beethoven’s earliest attempts at string quartet form and its first three movements betray signs of being patched together from sketches, but the Villiers smoothed them out and injected a sense of purpose.
The final movement is more vintage Beethoven and was clearly relished by the Villiers. Its headlong rush at the end matched the ending of the Britten for cheek.
The Villiers marked their Huddersfield debut by offering us a work that has never before featured in a Huddersfield Music Society programme, and it was a surprising and long overdue local première - the well-known Late Swallows by neighbouring Bradford’s greatest musical son Delius.
It is a sumptuous movement of Wagnerian sensuality which also shows the lasting influence of Delius’ friend Grieg, and is a poetic expression of regret for time past. The Villiers gave it a resourceful mix of pastel colours and sustained – but restrained – reflective intensity.
The Villiers played Elgar’s op. 83 Quartet for the judges of the Oxford University quartet-in-residence competition and the judges were bowled over. In Huddersfield they played it with dark-hued passion with something of the night about it.