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The Edinburgh Quartet

Written by James Allen, Telegraph

String quartets come and go, but not the Edinburgh Quartet: it has 43 years of music-making behind it and is still forging ahead. It is the only professional string quartet of any standing in Scotland.

In the mid-1990s it faced strong competition from the terrifically energised Yggdrasil Quartet at Aberdeen University, who carried the torch for Beethoven and Shostakovich. They came on the scene with a bang, but two years ago, when the world was their oyster, they broke up.

The Edinburgh Quartet is no flash in the pan and neither were its performances in Stockbridge parish church in Edinburgh. There was a strong sense of proportion to its playing, a crispness to the ensemble and a genuine feel to the interpretations, especially that of Shostakovich's Seventh Quartet.

Charles Mutter, also a member of the Smith Quartet, is the group's new first violinist. As with many young leaders, one could hear him striving for personal best, especially in the beginning of Haydn's Op 33 No 5. There was a tendency at the outset of this so-called 'How do you do?' quartet to shake it by the hand a bit too vigorously, but by the Scherzo Mutter's energy was galvanising the players and sweeping them along.

This was not a performance that relied on old tricks to bring it off. There was no luxuriating in the soft depths of the Largo and no cheesy smiles to the "so what?" endings of the first three movements. Instead, the music had cut and thrust.

The Edinburgh Quartet has a bright sound with a ring of steel around it that is ideal for modern music. It has capitalised on that by forming strong links with Scottish contemporary composers: its second disc of chamber music by Kenneth Leighton is due out this summer and this season it has premiered works by Peter Nelson, Stuart MacRae and Edward Harper.

Although the quartet's tone lacked the sort of rough edge and bristle that would have made Dvorak's E flat Quartet leap off the page, the playing continually shifted its weight and livened to the work's dance rhythms. Above all else it was articulate, notably in the warm, teasing breaths and whiplash changes of mood in the Largo, and the poetic lines of the opening movement.

The Edinburgh Quartet did not slap a tried and tested formula on to the music; it did something individual with it. That augurs well for the group's longevity.

  • published on 6 June 2003
  • written by James Allen for The Telegraph