Towering Brahms performances from the Zehetmair Quartet in Edinburgh

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2021 [2] – Brahms: Zehetmair Quartet. Old College Quad, Edinburgh, 10.8.2021. (SRT)

Zehetmair Quartet at the EIF © Ryan Buchanan

Brahms – String Quartet No.1 in C minor, Op.51; String Quartet No.2 in A minor, Op.51

The weather gods smiled kindly on the Edinburgh International Festival tent in Old College Quad today. Yesterday they were more bad tempered, sending a torrential downpour on the quad during a concert by Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Joonas Ahonen that created such a racket on the roof you could hardly hear the soloists at times. No such danger today: blissful, warm sunshine beamed down through the tent’s transparent ceiling, to the extent that several concertgoers had to improvise a sunshade for themselves, with others dashing towards empty seats in the shade. Be careful what you wish for.

The sunny weather stood in stark contrast to the dark mood of Brahms’s first two string quartets. Brahms was famously wary of Beethoven’s legacy when it came to writing a symphony, but he showed a similar reverence for the genre of the string quartet, and it took him nearly a decade to produce these two complementary masterpieces.

Zehetmair Quartet play in Old College Quad © Ryan Buchanan

The four musicians of the Zehetmair Quartet showed no such nerves about tackling them, however. Instead they gave the impression that they had been living with this music for as long a time as Brahms took to produce it, with sensitive, nuanced readings that seemed to come from the heart.

The darker C minor quartet came first, the opening quivering out of the silence with urgent intensity. Both of the outer movements were characterised by febrile drama, even the warmth of the second subjects shot through with a sense of tragedy, but the players found a vein of lyricism running through the music, too, so that it was never morose for its own sake. It was in the slow movement that they really came into their own, though, the mahogany tone of the strings forming a melting contrast to their surroundings as the gently repeating phrases rose upwards in the manner of a prayer.

Hearing both the Opus 51 quartets together forces the listener to engage with the idea of how far they make a pair. More than ever, they came across here as complementary masterpieces, acting as foils to one another: both are actors in a tragedy, but the first is the urgent hero while the second is its more reflective, introspective partner.

So, if drama was the keynote of the performance of No.1, then No.2 began with a dark note of reflection rather than anguish, setting a tone for a reading of poetry and beauty. If the tone of No.1 had a touch of aggression, then here the tone was as soft as down, never more inviting than in the autumnal slow movement which, for all its beauty, seemed shot through with feelings of regret and loss. The third movement, another of Brahms’s not-quite-scherzos, was a study in contrasts, leading to a finale whose swinging main theme gave way to more reflective episodes

This was a towering pair of performances, of deep seriousness; but for their encore they played an early Schubert Scherzo, as though to demonstrate that they can do good humour when they need to. You can see it for yourself between 14th October and 12th December when it will be available for free online (click here).

Simon Thompson

The 2021 Edinburgh International Festival takes place until Sunday 29th August in venues across the city. For full details click here.

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