MAKING a welcome return to Lake District Summer Music on the opening evening of the second week of the festival was the Navarra String Quartet in a programme of music by Haydn, Britten, and Schubert, writes CLIVE WALKLEY.

An early Haydn quartet, Op 20 No 2, opened the programme of the St Thomas’s Church, Kendal, concert. All six of the opus 20 set of quartets reveal Haydn’s growing mastery of the string quartet structure and have many interesting features. No 2, for example, opens with just three of the four instruments, and the melody line is given to the cello; the slow movement, begins with an assertive unison passage after which the influence of the opera house makes an appearance in an instrumental recitative and aria; the last movement, like two other quartets in the set, is a cleverly worked out fugue, Haydn thus incorporating into the new classical style a technique from an earlier era.

The first cello theme was boldly introduced by cellist Brian O’Kane and from the outset the playing was spirited and extrovert. Haydn provides few dynamic markings in his quartets, leaving players to decide what is implied when so few indications are given in the score, and how phrases are to be shaped. Dynamic contrasts were unmissable in this performance, but what impressed most was the wonderful pianissimo playing. At several points throughout the evening the quartet reduced their sound to a dynamic level which at times was almost on the threshold of audibility. String players in the audience recognised the level of technical skill required - in particular bow control - to achieve this effect.

Britten’s String third and last quartet, written shortly before his death in 1976, followed the Haydn. There are some interesting sonorities in the first three movements of this work but perhaps the movement that most remains in the memory is the final passacaglia. With its echoes of the composer’s opera Death in Venice and the bells of Venice itself, it has an other-worldly quality. When the long movement drew to a close, there was a palpable silence for several seconds as the players remained motionless before the spell was finally broken and the performance was met with rapturous applause. Such was the power of Britten’s music and the fine interpretation offered by this renowned quartet.

A performance of Schubert’s dramatic late G major quartet brought this magnificent concert to a close with many in the audience looking forward to the Navarra’s second appearance at the festival later in the week.