Think of a laboratory and you think of an experiment. The quartet-lab honours its name by bringing exactly that to The Royal Concertgebouw’s small hall: a musical experiment. Pieter Wispelwey, Pekka Kuusisto, Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Lilli Maijala form the quartet-lab. The ensemble juxtaposes different movements of works with improvisation and short pieces, and presents its own vision on classical music.

quartet-lab © Chris Dodd
quartet-lab
© Chris Dodd

The programme opens with the Sonata di marche from the Battalia by Austrian Baroque composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber. The work is a typical ‘battle piece’ of the period, with the music representing combat. To the special effects that the piece already contains, such as rebounding pizzicato and rapid note repetitions, the quartet-lab adds a cappella folk singing and a tambourine, making for an entertaining new version of Biber’s work. Equally playful is Mozart’s dice game (Musikalisches Würfelspiel in C). Dice rolls decide which of Mozart’s pre-written measurements are played to jointly form a different piece every time the “game” is played. Rather than throwing dice, in this case the quartet-lab simply asks the spectators on the first row for numbers to generate the music. To make the whole even more unpredictable, Mozart's piece is preceded by a Finnish folk song, the latter fluently morphing into the former.

quartet-lab does not just mix and match musical pieces, they actually re-invent music. Their version of Beethoven’s String Quartet no 4 in C minor contains newly added dynamic accents and tempi, rubato playing and even klezmer influences. By highlighting certain melodic lines, they create a new, more adventurous version of the string quartet that makes the original fade. The rapid Allegro, now even more vivid, pulls you right to the edge of your chair.

By now it should be clear: a concert by the quartet-lab is not going to be a dull one. And yet the second half of the concert does not quite live up to the exciting first half. This may be a matter of taste: the second half of the programme contains exclusively modern music. Whether you appreciate that or not, they are performed skilfully. The quartet-lab delivers some admirable Living Room Music by John Cage, a piece that requires objects to be taken from the living room and used as instruments. A brush and cutlery prove to work perfectly fine as instruments, and moreover provide an entertaining image.

Cage’s work is followed by Black Angels by avant-garde composer George Crumb. This is one of those incredibly modernistic works that tend to sound more like a bad horror soundtrack than actual music. Yet, a powerful image is painted when the performers play such instruments as wine glasses on a dark stage only lit by reading lights, releasing a magical sound. This quiet conclusion is remarkably different from the one seen in last season's performance in the Concertgebouw, where Kuusisto launched a bouquet of flowers into the audience after an elaborate folk music finale.

Tonight’s finale might be more fitting the intimate atmosphere, but it is less exciting. All in all, the quartet-lab’s new vision is refreshing and entertaining, and promising for the future of classical music. The result of quartet-lab's musical experiment is a net positive.

****1