The Armida Quartett is part of BBC Radio 3’s New Generation Artists scheme. Its members are however already very experienced musicians, the group formed in Berlin in 2006, and the playing is suave and clear with a deep understanding of Schubert's wonderful C-minor Quartettsatz (the first movement of a String Quartet that he got no further with). From the outset quiet intensity captured the imagination to complement this remarkable music.
There followed Sally Beamish's Merula perpetua, played by Lise Berthaud and David Saudubray, inspired by the song of a blackbird (merula). It is strongly programmatic music with a personal connection to the late Peter Maxwell Davies. Merula perpetua features drama more strongly than melody – but then the song of a blackbird does not resemble melody as we know it. The opening is a simple imitation of the bird’s repetitious call but two climactic sections then add colour and intensity, and when the viola-player is interrupted by a fierce onslaught from the pianist this seems to be the structural centrepiece. There is a discernible pattern about the work which, in the latter half, subsides to thoughtful quietness that continues to involve the blackbird’s influence. The song concludes abruptly in mid-phrase: a characteristic of all birdsong.
Mozart’s C-major String Quintet is surprisingly lengthy, a neglected work but the Armida members, joined by Berthaud, have great sympathy for it. They played the expansive opening Allegro in a very lyrical manner. It’s an unusual movement in that sonata form is much expanded. The listener can be forgiven for assuming that the return to the first theme is about to round off the exposition, but Mozart then adds an entirely new melody which leads unhurriedly back to the repeat, here observed. When the complex development section commences an interesting feature is the occasional dialogue between first viola and lead violin. The musicians instilled a suitable element of dance into the smooth Minuet where the generous Trio ends in softness. The slow movement has even more extensive duets, and while recognising the wittiness of the Finale, the players’ approach was of lightness of touch. Humour is a facet of many Mozart movements. Here it is urbane and gentle and these artists were well aware of it.