On Friday 26 August, Google chairman, Eric Schmidt, told a MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival audience, "Over the past century, the UK has stopped nurturing its polymaths. You need to bring art and science back together." The following morning, Russia's Kopelman Quartet opened their capacity crowd Queen's Hall concert with String Quartet No. 1 in A, by a multi-lingual, multi-instrumentalist composer and professor of Chemistry – Alexander Borodin (1833-1857). Just before the opening notes, violist Igor Sulyga combined stagecraft, impromptu sign-language, comedy and a little physics magic, when his raised bow prompted a crescendo of light, allowing the players to see their music.

An opening Moderato, soon reaching an intense peak, subsided into an Allegro, lively and elegant at first then increasingly edgy as it headed into rigorous, vital counterpoint. The balance and ensemble was everything one could have hoped for in a quartet of this pedigree – Mikhail Kopelman was, for some twenty years, the leader of the Borodin Quartet. 20-20 hind-hearing can tempt one into all sorts of speculations, but could it have been Borodin's familiarity with chemical synthesis which prompted him to incorporate, in the second movement, the folk tune The Song of the Sparrow Hills as a viola counter-melody in the belief that some element of folkloric feel might, by musical osmosis, transfer into his composed melody in the violin? This movement was played with quiet intensity and the quartet made unfussy, effective use of the many repeated, suspended cadences to sustain the tension. The closing movements, a Scherzo and an Andante – Allegro Risoluto were engaging examples of lively, democratic quartet writing and playing. As the audience showed its appreciation at the end of this half, I found it curious to consider that Mussorgsky and the critic, Stasov, to whom Bordodin showed initial sketches of the work, tried to discourage him from pursuing this obsolete genre. Would they have believed the size and involvement of this Edinburgh audience 136 years after their prematurely dismissive obituary?

Folk tunes, specifically those from the Kabardinian region of the then USSR (between the Black and Caspian Seas) permeated the middle work in the programme – String Quartet No. 2 in F major, Op. 92 by Prokofiev (1891-1953). Prokofiev, along with Shostakovich and Miaskovsky, had been evacuated to the region's capital, Nalchik, by the Soviet Government. Apart from relative safety in war-torn years, the region boasted a wealth of music little known beyond its confines. Keen to avoid diluting the character of his chosen folk melodies, Prokofiev declined to disguise them in too much artistry. The result was vigorous, oxygenated writing and something of a mixed reception from official critics - praise for using folk melodies and criticism for retaining their rough edges. The connectedness of our world – now and during these war years – seemed to breathe through this performance. Here, in our city, were four seasoned Moscow Conservatory-trained virtuosi, playing music from a then distant region of their vast country with its Persian and Islamic flavours – complete with Prokofiev's depiction of a kemange – a three-stringed, vertically held, spiked fiddle – an example of world music decades before the term's coining.

If you ever needed proof that the language used to describe music is, at best, a pale shadow of the language in the music, take a look at the tempo markings in String Quartet No 4 in D major, Op. 83 by Shostakovich (1906-75). Three out of four contrasting movements are marked Allegretto; clearly we are meant to look somewhere else for meaning. Master of the mixed message, Shostakovich never makes this easy: no triumph without tristesse; no downcast phrase bereft of fight; no playful phrase free from malignant quirkiness. Pressured to write Music for the People, incorporating folk sources Shostakovich, with typically tangential obedience, turned to Jewish Klezmer music. Often celebratory in its own context, his use has, at times, a thinly veiled bleakness – particularly in the final movement which, having generated great dance-like momentum, ends with a whimper. The fact that its year of publication coincided with Stalin's 'anti-cosmopolitan campaign' cannot be unconnected. This performance felt close to the source. Both Boris Kuschnir (2nd violin) and Igor Sulyga (viola) worked with Shostakovich on his late quartets. At the end, I felt, that strange sensation of fulfilment and enrichment – both at some remove from the uplifting.

An ironist such as Shostakovich would have loved what happened next. Sensing the effect of the heavy day's rising temperature on the enclosed audience, the Queen's Hall staff opened the fire door in the gallery. Then, as sunlight streamed in, the quartet offered the Nocturne from Borodin's String Quartet No 2 in D as an encore. Determined applause earned the audience Shostakovich's comical Polka from 2 Pieces for String Quartet – unambiguous humour, this time. The captivatingly odd, short opening Dance from Stravinsky's 1914 work, Three Pieces for String Quartet catapulted the audience out into Edinburgh's teeming South-side with a asymmetric spring in their step.