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Quartet's quality a stroke of geniuses

Written by Sandy Scott, CLASSICAL reviews, Evening News

THEIR second Viennese Music Soirée underlined that the Edinburgh Quartet players are in fine fettle. They continue to go from strength to strength. Works by Lanner, Strauss, Gál and Schubert made up the programme.

When Austrian composer and musicologist Hans Gál used to bracket Lanner with Strauss in his music history lectures, puzzled students would sometimes ask about the less familiar composer.

The reply was that Lanner's music is every bit as good as that of the better-known Strauss family.

Early in the 19th century Joseph Lanner formed a trio to play music in pubs and cafés. In 1823 it was joined by the senior Johann Strauss. Together the two men invented the extended Viennese form we recognise in The Blue Danube, which consists of an introduction, five waltzes and a coda.

On Saturday evening, the scene was set with a brisk performance of Lanner's Cerrito-Polka and the Wiener Gemüts-Walzer by Johann Strauss I. The second of these contains hints of things to come later in the better-known waltzes of Johann Strauss II.

Hans Gál spent the first half of his life in Vienna and the rest in Edinburgh. Composed in 1969, his third string quartet might perhaps be thought to display its Viennese ancestry most readily in the second movement [Scherzando]. It is, in effect, not all that far removed from the general spirit of the waltz.

Elegantly written, it demonstrates Gál's distinctively personal style. A linear opening movement, entitled Energico, shows him to be completely at home in the string quartet idiom. The slow third movement [Cantabile] demonstrates his mastery of contrapuntal writing. The Finale is entitled With Humour - a quality that was a fundamental element of the composer's life and music.

It remains to be noted in passing that the Edinburgh Quartet is currently engaged in recording all four of Gál's string quartets. They played No 3 with sophistication and obvious enjoyment.

Schubert's last string quartet is one of the largest of its genre. Its first movement was played at a concert in 1828, the year of his death, but a first complete performance had to wait for another 23 years.

Not least on account of its size, this quartet invites comparisons with his "Great" C major symphony. Both works may be seen to stretch traditional forms to the limit, if not beyond. Gál, in his study of Schubert's music, comments on its habit of "spreading out its wings in a way which could endanger the integrity of the form, were it not for Schubert's endless melody".

The Edinburgh Quartet ensured the energy of the opening Allegro was well sustained, and that the angry outbursts in the slow movement made their point with force. Nimble part-playing characterised the Scherzo, and its Trio looked back to the Strauss item earlier in the evening. The concluding Allegro Assai whirled along at a furious pace, confirming the high standard of performance these players can generate.

  • published on 21 June 2004
  • written by Sandy Scott for The Edinburgh Evening News
  • event: 4 June 2004, Stockbridge Parish Church, Edinburgh