Edinburgh Quartet (Queen’s Hall, 17th Feb. ’16)

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“An interpretation of utter conviction, inspiration and stellar playing throughout”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars: Nae Bad

The Edinburgh Quartet continued the second phase of their 2015/16 Season under the banner of “Storm and Stress”, derived from the loose translation of the German ‘Sturm und Drang’ movement of the eighteenth century. In this movement passionate expression was given free rein in literature, but also in music with works by Haydn and Mozart at the forefront. The Quartet performed a typical Sturm und Drang work by Haydn, Op 76 No 2 “The Fifths” alongside Bartók’s thrilling, dissonant but rewarding 3rd Quartet and Grieg”s surprisingly complex and at times  dark Quartet in G minor.

The Quartet got straight into their opening number with final tuning completed off stage. This, along with their precision and togetherness, immediately gave the audience confidence that they were in safe hands and in for a treat. So it proved.

The Haydn has (if you will forgive the pun) no hidin’ place (geddit?) in the transparency and openness of 18th century music, and chamber music in particular. The quartet were not found wanting. Clarity, accuracy, full on expression and commitment were the order of the day, and brought this 200-year-old work fully to life. At the end of the first movement I could not stop myself whispering “Wow” under my breath. By the third movement what impressed me most about this band was their sheer synergy. Disciplined, supportive pizzicato to Tristan Gurney’s lead violin, lightness of touch in the final movement with lead violin again doing most of the heavy lifting, as well as the dramatic opening fifths that told us this band meant business.

I have to say I had my heart in my mouth for the Bartok. A complex, austere work with brutal sul ponticello and col legno bowing, glissando fingering and a deep contrapuntal architecture, all grafted on to Hungarian folk song in a collage of different shades and expressions, at times highly dissonant, at others wistfully melodic. A hard act to pull off and a work after which the string quartet genre was never quite the same again. It has probably only been done justice by the Alban Berg Quartet, although the Takacs have given a creditable performance, and it was refreshing to hear the Edinburgh Quartet’s assured version of this piece that makes demands of players and audience alike.

I particularly enjoyed how the musicians let the music speak for itself – the various techniques demanded by the composer contributed to the overall musical experience rather than distracting through novelty or sensationalism. By this I mean the disconcerting col legno (basically bashing the bow up and down on the strings, even reversing the bow so the wood strikes them) was artistically justified!

We needed a breather after that and the interval proved welcome respite. We returned to the auditorium expecting some dreamy Grieg. Not so. This was more Peer Gynt than the Holberg Suite. A major, serious work full of contrasts, based on Spillemand, a Norwegian song from 1876, that gave us a strong, dramatic opening leading into a more lyrical style as it progressed. The quartet rewarded us with an interpretation of utter conviction, inspiration and stellar playing throughout. Special mention here has to be made to Cellist Mark Bailey laying down a melody of plaintive yearning, sensitively supported by ripieno violins and viola.

So, taken in the round, once again some really creative programming delivered with enthusiasm and élan. Putting Haydn and Bartok together before the interval took some courage, and it worked, albeit lacking just a touch of the transcendental magic shown in the Quartet’s previous outing. An engrossing, rewarding evening’s music. Bravo.


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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 17 February)

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