Ben Hogwood visits the Edinburgh String Quartet on their home turf for an inventive program studying the intimacy of the string quartet
Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, Wednesday 11 November
Schubert String Quartet in E flat major, D87 (1813)
Shostakovich String Quartet no.7 (1960)
Sibelius String Quartet in D minor, Op.56, Voces Intimae (1909)
Intimate Voices was the subtitle of this triptych from the Edinburgh String Quartet, an intriguing look at how the combination of two violins, viola and cello has become one of the main expressive forms in classical music.
To show how composers have approached the medium in different ways they presented a quartet by the teenage Schubert, a mature and compact example by Shostakovich and the only fully published example by Sibelius.
Of the three pieces it was perhaps this one – subtitled Intimate Voices – that carried the most penetrating emotional impact, played with passion and purpose by the quartet, whose dynamic control was especially impressive. The quiet moments, helped by an attentive Queen’s Hall audience, were a real window into Sibelius’ mind, and his string writing, which as the perceptive booklet note pointed out was boosted by his knowledge of stringed instruments through playing the violin, was interpreted with real style.
This piece was equalled in emotional impact by the Shostakovich, arguably the most effective of his fifteen quartets at making its mark in a very short space of time. Just twelve minutes pass in the String Quartet no.7 but in it we get deep into the thoughts of the composer. Shostakovich vividly illustrates his humour in the face of adversity but also the adversity itself, and the Edinburgh Quartet could be found warily treading forward as though worried what might be around the corner. Here again they paid exquisite attention to the quiet writing, so that when the third movement exploded out of the box it did so angrily and with maximum impact.
By complete contrast the first item in the program served notice that the sixteen year old Schubert was capable of going places. While taking obvious leads from Haydn (the second movement) and Mozart (the third) the String Quartet in E flat, published as D87 in the composer’s catalogue, is a beautifully crafted work that is by no means a copy. Schubert writes with confidence and melodic interest, the roots of his work in song already sown and making their most poignant effect in the first and third (slow) movements. The second movement was a blink-and-you-miss-it affair, with first violinist Tristan Gurney and cellist Mark Bailey helping to bring out the humour. Overall the intimacy between the players was as Gurney said in an insightful chat with the audience, essentially being a conversation between friends.
Gurney’s introduction was a key part of the enjoyment of this concert, showing that the theme Intimate Voices need not be restricted to the four players, but that the audience were included as well.
The Edinburgh String Quartet website can be accessed here