Inclement weather stalks the Edinburgh Quartet; at least, those concerts which I’ve attended in the past few months. On cue the early evening heavens opened unstintingly. By the time the concert approached it had “faired”, as the Scots sometimes say, but perhaps disinclination to venture out had been irreversibly embraced by some. That’s not to say that the attendance was poor. The central stalls were pretty full; less so the posture-punishing pews which frame the Queen’s Hall’s wooden horseshoe. Audience response seemed to suggest that those present felt their efforts rewarded and I certainly enjoyed this programme of four-movement quartets, which all featured rhythmic trickery.

Edinburgh Quartet © Jean Stoner
Edinburgh Quartet
© Jean Stoner

The opening Haydn work was the programme’s only work by a quartet veteran. His 1781 Quartet in E flat major, Op. 33 no. 2, “The Joke”, seemed to contain more than one jape. The elegant opening movement, into which the Edinburgh Quartet effortlessly eased, seemed to have an amazingly brief development section as the opening theme soon returned. However, this ruse soon yields to a section of dramatic, chromatic counterpoint proving that this sonata movement’s conflicts are far from resolved. I admired the way the quartet “upped the ante” here, while remaining within the realms of classical period balance. Balance between the parts was remarkable across the programme, which is all the more impressive as the second violinist, Clara Biss, is currently standing in for the quartet’s new permanent member, Gordon Bragg, who is currently honouring some prior engagements. The jaunty Scherzo was nicely offset by a beautifully paced Largo whose hauntingly simple theme undergoes a variety of “scorings” and treatments. The quartet made light work of the ensemble skills required to pull off this movement. It wasn’t until consulting the score later that I realised just how moments there are where coordinated re-entry following space is essential. The Finale’s many false endings and inconclusive final phrase were cheekily delivered. The quartet finished, bows raised, looking into the distance, almost as though passing the baton to colleagues at the back of the hall.

Like many, I’m often drawn to new works by the slow movement. This is certainly the case with Britten’s 1941 String Quartet no. 1. Composed while ensconced in Escondido, California, this quartet conforms, on paper, to the classical four-movement structure. However, traditional classical balance is sidelined; the the first and third movements dwarf the second and fourth. The third, marked Andante calmo, wears its 5/4 time in a quietly gripping way. In this performance any possible sense of asymmetry or irregularity seemed to be replaced by two very unlikely bedfellows: stillness within movement and movement within stillness. The movement’s other delight, which the Edinburgh Quartet delivered very tastefully, was its reharmonisation of previously heard phrase endings. I was reminded of those moments, such as had happened en route to the venue, where tiny cloud shifts suddenly recast surroundings in a new light. Such moments are so easily overdone, but not here.

This movement was offset by the closing Molto vivace’s relatively frenzied counterpoint, suggesting the confined busyness of a fugue’s final stretto section – minus the gradual build-up. Throughout the movement, and the quartet as a whole, I was impressed by cellist Mark Bailey. The work’s opening is very much a three against one affair and the cello continues to plough its own furrow for much of the piece. This sense of being at one remove requires, it seems to me, as much in the way of ensemble skill as music more obviously in tandem with the others.

Like Britten, Tchaikovsky first embraced the quartet genre in his early 30s. He too opted for ear-catching metre in his 1871 String Quartet no. 1 in D major. Due to use of tied notes, the opening movement’s 9/8 feels less 3+3+3 than 2+3+2+1+1. Nevertheless, it has an easy grace. The Edinburgh Quartet certainly captured this and, even more so, the unalloyed joy of the second subject. More rhythmic shenanigans characterise the following Andante. Its opening Russian folk melody contains a 3/4 bar slotted into a 2/4 metre. Tchaikovsky is variously reported as having heard this tender melody whistled by a gardener or painter. In either case, Tolstoy, who was reputedly overcome by this movement, would surely have been delighted that a working man delivered the tune to the maestro. The jaunty minor mood of the Scherzo, with its “au talon” (tip of the bow) syncopations, offered an effective contrast before yielding to the Finale, described as “symphonic” in Dr Roger B. Williams’ fine programme notes. The second subject, a lovely viola melody, was beautifully shaped by Jessica Beeston who, I imagine, must have enjoyed this programme for its wealth of viola moments. The movement’s energetic climax reached, the piece resolved on simple octave Ds to warm and sustained applause.