The Chilingirian String Quartet

Performing at Portaferry Presbyterian Church, the chamber music stars impress Philip Hammond with music from three classical masters

Sitting uncomfortably in the gallery of Portaferry Presbyterian Church, I wonder if as many visitors are attracted by the normal Sunday services. Are the neo-classical lines of this historic, early Victorian edifice an incentive beyond religion?

The fair-sized Friday evening congregation is attending one of a series of unusual musical events designed to raise money for the general upkeep and restoration of the building - and open it to a much wider public. Preserving the architectural past and supporting the currently endangered species of chamber music is an applaudable combination.

But this is no mere amateur night at the church hall. Tonight's artists are the members of the internationally acclaimed Chilingirian String Quartet; Levon Chilingirian (violin), Philip De Groote (cello), Richard Ireland (violin), and Susie Mészáros (viola).

Armed with informality and engaging introductions, the performers have chosen a programme that makes no concession to provinciality - Haydn, Bartók and Dvorák are not sops to bring in an audience. But I wince momentarily when the Chilingirians encourage this audience to applaud when it so desires, in good 18th-century tradition.

The acoustics of the austere Greek temple-posing-as-a -Presbyterian-church aesthetically complements the clarity of the Chilingirians' sound. The quartet's approach to Haydn's 'Op.71.No.2' has a raw edge to it. Part of this is attributable to the Chilingirians' very individual intonation, reflecting to an extent the non-homogeneity of the quartet's rich and full sound. I sense an involving immediacy about Haydn's music in this interpretation, which can be so easily lost in the over-preciousness of the recording industry's demands.

Applause between movements is usually fine in Haydn, almost acceptable in Dvorák and completely inappropriate in Bartók. It's not a matter of stuffy etiquette: by breaking up the cumulative momentum built over four movements, the power and effect of the whole can be lost. Unfortunately, that happens during the Chilingirians' performance of Bartók's sixth quartet.

Each movement is interrelated and cannot be heard in isolation. Breaking the concentration between each movement ultimately destroys the work's impact. Despite their technical prowess, their full exploitation of all the many and varied string effects that Bartók rolls out, their experienced attention to the challenging detail of this work, the performers can't sustain its underlying, emotional bleakness.

Dispersing the darkness of the Bartók, Dvorák's 'American' quartet is, by contrast, fresh, light and bright. Its tunefulness is carefully tempered by the Chilingirians, who avoid over-sweetening this particular cake. They capture the lively Czech inferences, they hint at the soft American overtones, they describe the gentle nostalgia and they define the sparkling dance rhythms - but all without playing to the gallery. The audience continue to applaud after each movement.

The Chilingirians obviously relish their special rapport with the music they play, and the audience for whom they perform. The latter is not always so predictably well behaved, even in church.