There can be few more beguiling places to hear chamber music than Troldsalen, the intimate concert hall built into the hillside at Troldhaugen, the beautiful home Edvard Grieg built for himself outside Bergen in Norway. Musicians perform in front of a floor-to-ceiling plate glass window that looks directly out over the limpid waters of Nordåsvannet with, in the middle of the view, the humble little hut where the composer worked on so much of his music – a rustic reminder that, like any other craft, supreme creativity requires its practical workshop.

Oslo String Quartet © Paul Johannessen
Oslo String Quartet
© Paul Johannessen

Appearing in front of this magical backdrop were the Oslo String Quartet, with a programme for the Bergen International Festival that would contain none of Grieg’s music, yet kept his ghostly presence very much in mind.

They opened with Haydn’s String Quartet in G major Op.77 no. 1, a composer whose mastery of the form Grieg attempted to capture in his own String Quartet in G minor of 1877. Haydn’s opening Allegro moderato quickly plunges through several audacious modulations, providing a spectacular showcase for the silky virtuosity of the Oslo players. They found an uneasy serenity in the magisterial Adagio before scampering off into the dazzling third movement Minuetto, handling its hilariously abrupt gear change with aplomb and evident delight, and if there is such a thing as disciplined playfulness they found it in the exultant finale. This was a profoundly impressive performance.

They moved into uncharted territory next. Unsuk Chin is composer-in-residence at this year’s festival and the players admitted beforehand that they had not come across her piece ParaMetaString before, even though it dates from 1996. It takes the form of a traditional four-movement quartet, but there the similarity ends. Devoid of all melody, Chin says the piece is a study based purely on string sounds.

In the first movement, blocks of recorded, artificially enhanced tremolo motifs vibrate and shimmer beneath the texture, with the quartet buzzing angrily overhead. Sharp interjections arrive and leave, like cars passing at speed, a Doppler effect on sliding strings. The low C on the cello becomes the focus of attention in the second movement, recorded col legno (struck with the wood of the bow) to produce a pulse that provides a background for an exploration of harmonics across all the instruments.

A roar like an accelerating jet engine lifts the third movement skywards as each player slides up the fingerboard in an extended glissandi, punishing to listen to and, judging by the expression on each musician’s face, painful to sustain. There was more exaggerated col legno playing in the final movement, before the buzzing tremolo motifs of the first returned to close the piece. As an exploration in sonority and sensation this was a fascinating exercise. Anyone hoping for a tune would be sorely disappointed – but then they would also be missing the point.

Debussy’s String Quartet no. 1 in G minor – which he modelled on Grieg’s G minor quartet – closed the evening in blazing style, the passionate ebb and flow of the opening movement producing a rawness that at times threatened to push the music out of shape. Things were more controlled in the brilliantly rhythmic pizzicato of the second before the yearning, longing melody of the Andantino broke over us like a dazzling wave – a moment of pure heaven. That rawness returned in the finale, but this time appropriate to the thrilling chase that brings the piece to its ecstatic conclusion.

Stephen's press trip was funded by the Royal Norwegian Embassy in London and Bergen International Festival