If you're an amateur musician and go to a performance of Liszt or Chopin by a virtuoso pianist, a common reaction is astonishment at the sheer number of notes they can play. Where, you wonder, are the other two musicians who must be hidden somewhere. Last night at Blackheath Halls, the Wihan Quartet evoked the opposite experience: they were so perfectly together that you could close your eyes and be quite convinced that there was only one person playing.

Wihan Quartet
Wihan Quartet

The effect was quite astonishing. In the Beethoven Op.18 no.1 quartet, there were moments of rubato where the music would stop for a second or more, and, with a sharp intake of breath, all four players would come in on the next note, with extreme attack, and not a millisecond to separate them. The excitement generated in the audience was palpable. In the first Rasumovsky quartet, the flowing lines of the first movement were played so tightly together that the notes of each chord were as close as those from a solo guitarist or pianist. And the quartet were only just warming up: the extraordinary staccato second movement built on this, and the slow third movement, one of the few in his life that Beethoven marked "mesto" (sad), achieved a rare intensity of passionate yearning.

The classical music world is so competitive that we're well accustomed to hearing players with phenomenal technical skill and musical knowledge. But seeing a small chamber group at the top of their game brings an extra dimension: watching and listening to the relationship between the musicians. It's hard for us mere mortals to conceive of how much practice, intuition and mutual understanding is required to achieve the level of togetherness displayed by the Wihans.

Greenwich Trio
Greenwich Trio

Perhaps even more exciting is the opportunity to watch that understanding developing in a young chamber group setting out on their careers. On Monday evening, I had the privilege of seeing superstars in the making: under the auspices of the London Cello Society, the Greenwich Trio played Beethoven and Brahms Trios in a lovely room in a Kensington home. Here, the togetherness was augmented by showmanship and visible right there on the surface for all to see: flashing eyes, gestures, body language all pointed at the intense relationship between the players: this and their music communicated directly to a rapt audience. This was chamber music played wonderfully in the environment for which it was written, a small and elegant salon.

One of the key problems of a piano trio, as explained before the event in a talk by Bernard Greenhouse of the legendary Beaux Arts Trio, is the difficulty of achieving balance between the piano and the other instruments. One attendee said of the pianist (Yoko Misumi) "You know, she's achieved something extraordinary: she plays the piano like a string player". It was true: never have I heard piano and stringed instruments meld together so seamlessly, and the effect on the music was a great increase in its power and ability to generate emotion.

Both concerts were truly uplifting, with the audiences leaving an a real high. As a relative newcomer to chamber music, I found the experience a world apart from listening to a CD: even outstanding recordings on great equipment can't begin to match the excitement of seeing the interaction between the musicians and hearing what it creates. I'll be back for more!

---David Karlin