Who could believe that a boy, whose elderly Viennese neighbours recalled throwing snowballs at Beethoven, would live until the year of Michael Jackson's album Bad? The music of Hans Gál (1890-1987), enjoying something of a 21st century renaissance, was at the heart of this celebratory Edinburgh Quartet programme. The quartet is affiliated to Edinburgh University where Gál worked until 1960.

Hans Gál
Hans Gál

Two contrasting works explored Gál's penchant for wind-string combinations. The lyrical Maximiliano Martín featured in Gal's 1977 Clarinet Quintet Op.107, the opening notes falling to him alone before the quartet joined in. The reverse was the case in this sonata movement's second subject. The very term 'sonata movement' might sound out of place in a work composed the same year as Pierre Boulez's IRCAM opened and it has to be acknowledged that Gál's music is somewhat anachronistic - but no less lovely for it. The opening Allegro comodo called Brahms to mind, while moments of the central Lento - quasi allegro had the dark pathos of Strauss' Metamorphosen. The five-part arch structure of this movement guaranteed both symmetry and continual contrast. The closing Poco adagio - allegro molto called to mind that sense of wellbeing found in much English pastoral music. The playing was wonderful here and Martín's tone beautiful throughout. The ensemble shaped the music's harmonic adventures admirably. Although individual moments sounded tonally rational, I sensed great shifts across the work as a whole, often propelled by fine contrapuntal writing.

Much lighter, and more French in style and sensibility, was Gáls 1961 Concertino for Flute and String Quartet Op.82. This was, in fact, the first performance of the work with flute as the lead instrument, a contingency present from the outset when Gál wrote the 'lead part' for Carl Dolmetch's recorder.

From the opening of the nostalgic Preludio it was clear that flautist Juliette Bausor's tone and playing were extraordinary. The reach to higher registers seemed effortless, the sound never in the least strained. The harmony in this first of four movements was very interesting; many chords were extended beyond simple triad structure, but the sense of movement seemed less than in the previous work.

The Scherezo lirico, which had the urbane wit of, say, Poulenc, featured Mark Bailey's cello in imitation of an arpeggio-providing guitar. The following Notturno seemed yet more urbane - almost ironic - and could easily have served as the theme of a cognoscenti's 60s arts documentary. The closing Rondo capricciosa revisited the arch form idea, extending the fast/slow contrast to seven sections. Bausor's playing was admirably elegant here. Phrasing and balance across the strings was very impressive, especially in the fierce fugato section near the movement's conclusion.

One can only speculate about undeclared programming decisions and my guess about the inclusion of Mozart's Flute Quaret in D Major, K285 would be its contrasting take on wind-string combination. Interplay between the sole violin and viola seemed radiated from the lean string texture. The flute is the undisputed leader in this work - the 21-year old Mozart keen to please the work's commissioner - and Bausor's bright tone and lively playing invigorate the outer movements. The central, minor key Adagio was magical. Not only was the harmony lovely but the entirely pizzicato accompaniment was captivating. Violin and viola held mandolin-style, Tristan Gurney and Fiona Winning shadowed one another effortlessly in the many beautifully shaped cadences.

My guess re the resonance of the closing item, Mendelssohn's String Quartet in F minor, Op.80 would be that both Gál and Mendelssohn seem composers 'outside their time'. Gál sustained a belief in tonality's expressive potential in a long-atonal world; Mendelssohn's classical sensibility inclined him to balance form and content while many romantic contemporaries allowed the latter to mould the former. That said, this quartet contains many stormy moments and was here performed with thrilling commitment. The dark choice of key and the minor tonality's angular melodic possibilities were launched by a wonderful tremolando opening. The second subject, in the related key of A-flat major had the feeling of frustratingly late arrival as if the minor key theme wasn't for yielding and this tension was nicely handled.

The Scherzo had less the titular promise of jocularity and more the dread of a Dies Irae - its ascending motif suggesting rising, inescapable flames. The intense playing required to convey this eased off nicely in the Trio where paired violins floated above the lower, initiating pairing of viola and cello. The major key Adagio was a gem of quartet writing and playing.

The closing Finale: Allegro molto, containing chords reminiscent of the 'wheezing accordion' in Beethoven's String Quartet in E minor Op.59 finished literally on a high - leader Tristan Gurney's soaring, virtuosic counter to the reprised theme. This was fine playing, heartily received.

****1