The Power of Four

The enduring fascination of string quartets for musicians, composers and audiences

The remarkable thing about the string quartet is how it endures. There are plenty of combinations of instruments, even matching instruments: say, trumpets, trombones and tubas. Composers also continue to find fancy new foursomes (I’m sure there’s a piece for piccolo, ukulele, basset-horn and harp somewhere).

But the string quartet – two violins, a viola and a cello – holds a special position. “The formation of these four instruments is straightforward, like the four voices in a choir: soprano, alto, tenor, bass,” says Valentin Erben. For nearly 40 years, Erben was the cellist of the Alban Berg Quartett, one of the most eminent string quartets of the past century. A string quartet when it “plays in tune and with matching tone and vibrato, creates an unbelievable quality of sound.”

The notion of the quartet is also sociological for Erben. First written by Joseph Haydn, during the Enlightenment, the concept of four equal partners is in essence a democratic one. “I learned a great deal by playing quartets. By looking at every note from ten sides.” Not only did it “sharpen my ear, it sharpened my mind.” And, he adds, “quartets teach tolerance,” which is also crucial for democracy.

String Quartet
Emerson Quartet // © Lisa Mazzucco

The Magnificent Four

Plenty of quartets are tucked into Vienna’s concert hall programming. From now until the season ends in June, the two major halls Musikverein, and Konzerthaus, have 26 string quartets scheduled, an appreciable number indeed.

Homegrown groups include the Hagen Quartet, the Quatuor Mosaïques and the Hugo Wolf, Eos, Küchl and Artis quartets. And there are other greats coming: the Prague-based Pavel Haas Quartet, and the Emerson String Quartet, one of America’s most renowned.

The Quatuor Ébène will be here in June. When I heard them last, their range from quiet to loud verged on the dangerous. The Diotima will hopefully come again: Last November, they played luscious Schoenberg (no, not a contradiction in terms), breathtaking Boulez (with precision verging on hundredths of a second), and late Beethoven (clearly as iconoclastic for the 19th century as Schoenberg was for the 20th).

String Quartet
Artemis Quartet // © Felix Broede

Then there are the contemporary superheroes: the legendary Arditti Quartet and the young American rising stars, the JACK Quartet. The Arditti have premiered more than 700 works, reading a quartet the same way I can read a newspaper – even all that tricky stuff in modern works, like microtones and excruciatingly complex rhythms. They have inspired that many composers!

Finally, the Artemis and Belcea quartets are coming, two remarkably dissimilar groups that share a series at the Konzert­haus. The wonderful Berlin-based Artemis is fourfold dynamite: They perform standing (well, the cellist sits on a podium), playing not only to be heard but also to be seen. And the Belcea, with a purity of sound and clarity of gesture that leave me speechless, is no less dynamic, but their focal point is between themselves; the audience is privileged to watch.

You get the idea. The list of my favorites goes on and on.

String Quartet
Belcea Quartet // © Marco Borggreve

The reason is because they are so diverse. Each has a special sound, a way of playing that is all their own. According to Erben, the more different the individuals in a quartet, the more interesting the group becomes. Though they shouldn’t be too different: “The quartet is a delicate equilibrium; the slightest imbalance can make it topple.”

For Erben, the idea of the string quartet will always be up-to-date. “There are more young quartets today than ever before,” he says, “something all the more astonishing because nowadays it seems everyone wants to do their own thing.”

Is the string quartet a dying art form? I think the answer is clear. Absolutely not.

Küchl Quartet: Musikverein, February 13

Artemis Quartet: Konzerthaus, February 26 & 27

Emerson Quartet: Konzerthaus, March 7


Cynthia Peck
Cynthia Peck
Cynthia Peck is originally from Southern California, but she does not miss the sun. She lived in Tokyo for a decade, and she does miss the food. Now the Konzerthaus and Musikverein are her main living rooms, as are a few select restaurants around town. Trained in Vienna as a professional cellist, she also works at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, translates and edits lots of books about Buddhist epistemology and Austrian history, and is thinking about apprenticing as a chef. What she enjoys most is writing about music.

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