EIF: Zehetmair Quartet

Edinburgh Festival

Old College Quad

A colleague’s description of the EIF’s temporary venue at Edinburgh Academy Junior School as a “glam polytunnel” might more precisely be applied to its smaller sibling at the University of Edinburgh. While Monday’s chamber recital reportedly had to compete with the rain beating on the plastic roof, in the early afternoon of Tuesday fruit would have ripened nicely as the sun cooked the human occupants. Such are the vagaries of August in Edinburgh.

From the first bar of Thomas Zehetmair’s measured exploration of the first two quartets of Brahms with his quartet, it was evident that amplification was an issue. Comparison with the Queen’s Hall, where this programme would have been heard in normal circumstances, are unfair though, and the ear quickly attuned to the thicker sound use of microphones and loudspeakers inevitably creates, and appreciated the immaculate internal balance of this group nonetheless.

As with his symphonies, Johannes Brahms took his time to reach the point when he was happy to let the world hear a string quartet of his composition, but when he arrived there, the creative tap was switched on. Of these two Opus 51 quartets, the first, in C Minor, shows the most obvious consciousness of the shadow of Beethoven on the composer’s shoulder – or his benign influence.

That seemed particularly true of the ensemble in the Finale here. In the slow movement the individual talents of the quartet shone through: the singing tone of Christian Elliott’s cello in the upper register, and the lovely combination of second violin Jakub Jakowicz and Ruth Killius on viola.

The A Minor quartet sounds more Brahmsian from the start. If the acoustic compromises here had harmed the attack of the opening of the first work’s final movement, there was no damage to the intimacy the players achieved at the opening of this one. The plangent theme alternates with flurries of drama, leading beautifully into the Andante where there was no lingering on the phrasing and a sense of purpose pushing forward all the time.

The “Quasi” minuet and last movement that follow may employ dance rhythms, but only intermittently, the third movement’s woozy, swooning changing gear as it ups the pace and the players finding a querulous tone on the journey to the work’s decisive last bar.

It was perhaps to underline that longed-for feeling of resolution that the leader chose the Scherzo from Schubert’s E-flat major quartet as a sparkling encore to send us out into the capital sunshine.

Keith Bruce