In one of Europe’s hottest capitals (that day), a sizeable Edinburgh crowd gathered in the shade of the Dovecot Studios for this season’s final RSNO chamber concert. Once seated, peripheral vision might have led you to believe you were in one of the brightest libraries ever assembled, but the shelves, lining the length of the venue, contain reels of wool, this being the home of a tapestry studio and exhibition space.

Dovecot Studios; photo by Mike Wilkinson
Dovecot Studios; photo by Mike Wilkinson

Positioned in front of two giant looms, a string quartet drawn from the ranks of the RSNO opened with Haydn’s String Quartet in D major Op. 76 no. 5. The quartet’s sound in the elegant 6/8 exposition was beautifully clear. The calm Allegretto opening is something of a “garden path” as it returns as an Allegro in the recapitulation. Between these contrasting incarnations, there was some wonderful counterpoint in which Francesca Hunt’s lovely viola sound made its presence felt, especially when pushed to the fore by syncopation. The movement also contained some lightly handled ornamental passages and impressive high-wire work by first violin, Barbara Paterson.

The sound darkened noticeably in the following Largo cantabile e mesto, due to the reduced instance of open strings in the new key of F sharp major. I felt that the quartet really captured the movement’s wistful nature. Some nice rhythmic trickery followed in the Menuetto, where notes grouped in twos challenged the triple metre. Impressed as I was by William Paterson’s steadying quavers in the minor-key Trio, I wondered for a moment if the lively acoustic was perhaps a disadvantage in this movement. In the only other chamber concert I’ve attended in this venue, the musicians set up at the opposite, shallow end of this former swimming pool. Could choice of end possibly make a difference in a symmetrical venue? I was confounded further by crystal-clear cello semiquavers in the following Finale: Presto. There is clearly much more to the science of acoustics than meets the ear. This movement featured some energising, repeated quavers in fifths, which, for some reason, brought to mind Bryan Ferry’s take on “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”. Thankfully, these quickly filled out into quite dramatic harmony, which seemed to fuel the exhilarating sense of animated abandon in this performance.

A musical equivalent of the open skylights above the musicians took the form of Wolf’s 1887 Italian Serenade. The quartet clinched the mercurial feel of this piece, which oscillates between airy brightness and tongue-in-cheek melodramatic vigour. One touch of the former, nicely marked here, was the oxygenating quaver rest which appears when the joyous second theme is in full flight. A fine example of the latter appeared in the “recitative” moments for cello which were nicely delivered. Perusing the score of this deceptively breezy sounding work later, I was struck by its tonal and rhythmic sophistication and its very detailed articulation. If, as Quintillian asserts, “the perfection of art is to conceal art”, then this piece, and this performance, provided a wonderful illustration of that process.

The relatively short first half no doubt took into account the stature of Schubert’s 1828 String Quintet in C major which followed the interval. Never having seen the piece performed, I was first stuck by Schubert’s cunning way of registering the value of a second cello: the opening phrase is for standard string quartet; the answering phrase drops one violin, adding the additional cello. The difference in colour, enhanced by a major/minor contrast, was striking. The opening movement’s second theme allowed us to hear the richness of paired cellos accompanied by upper strings. Replacing the scheduled second cellist, Rachel Lee worked very well alongside Paterson. Indeed, visual communication and sense of enjoying the piece, and one another’s contribution, was evident across the quintet as a whole.

What first caught my attention in this piece, when I first heard it many years ago, was the Adagio. The profound stillness of the soaring violin and the cello’s paced, pizzicato punctuation were nicely bound here by the inner instruments’ beautifully shaped harmonies. This was especially true of the suspended chords and the resolution of their tension. Following the more animated central section, the varied return of the opening material was played with heartfelt sincerity.

Having resided in the Adagio’s calming domain for such a time, the Scherzo was a great contrast. It seemed possessed of a furious, bucolic joy, the earthiness of the cellos counterpointing the heaven-bound soaring of the first violin. Its contrastingly solemn Trio featured some sensitively shaped, paired melodic work on viola and second cello. A swaggering, dance-like Allegretto concluded this fine performance. The attentive stillness of the audience throughout this 52-minute work suggested that their enjoyment had matched my own.

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