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'An opportunity not to be missed', by Dr Katy Hamilton

posted on 20/09/23

In the last 250 years or so, a great many composers, performers and writers have spilled a great deal of ink on the question of the string quartet. Many will tell you, along with the British critic Edwin Evans, that it is ‘the most perfect, concise and self-contained combination in all music’. Others may agree with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who described the quartet as ‘the most comprehensible genre of instrumental music. One hears four intelligent people conversing with one another, believes one might learn something from their discourse and recognise the special characteristics of their instruments’.

I confess to mild iconoclasm when it comes to statements such as these – not because I don’t like string quartets, but because such a focus on the refined intellectual sophistication of the ensemble misses (in my humble opinion) a crucial element of the grouping: the noise it makes. What sounds, individual and collective, can four brilliant players achieve with their resonant wooden boxes, steel-wound wires and hanks of horsehair? Will it be the stamp and kick of a Bohemian dance, as in the ‘Slavonic’ Quartet of Antonín Dvořák? The glassy spaciousness of Benjamin Britten’s First Quartet? The rich, creamy writing of Brahms, or the manic energy of Beethoven? Will it sing, skip or march – and will the players be set off working utterly together, or in urgent scrubbing counterpoint to keep us guessing where the musical road may lead?

In short, there is something for everyone in this vast musical genre. And it has remained central to the repertoire for this long precisely because of the variety it offers composers, performers and audiences alike. Those who favour chamber intimacy and textural clarity can revel in Mozart and Haydn, while those with an appetite for bigger, brasher music aimed at larger concert audiences will savour Beethoven’s ‘Rasumovsky’ Quartets. Twentieth-century composers like Janáček and Ligeti lead us into bolder experiments of harmony and sound – as unexpected and electrifying as Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ Quartet must have been to its first auditors over one hundred years before. So many creative possibilities remain latent in those 16 strings.

And, of course, it’s not always just 16 strings on offer: sextets and octets allow us to peek into the grey area between ‘chamber’ and ‘orchestral’, and perhaps also serve to remind us just how far these ensembles have grown beyond their original confines. What was once a private pursuit for learned men in grand houses has become a public venture that can captivate hundreds of people at a time. The opportunity to hear such a dazzling array of repertoire and performers in the fabulous surroundings of Salzburg’s most beautiful spaces is one not to be missed. I hope to see you there!

With best wishes,

Dr Katy Hamilton

View programme for Salzburg String Quartet Festival, 7–12 May 2024