I was pretty sure I was going to enjoy the latest Music Nairn concert when I saw the programme. I studied Mozart's K448 String Quartet 'The Hunt' half a century ago and amazingly I can still conjure up the score in my head! I also love the underperformed Sibelius op56 Quartet 'Voces intimae' and Greig op27 Quartet, so it was with considerable anticipation that I turned up for the Engegård Quartet's performance. Their reading of the Mozart was beautifully nuanced and wonderfully detailed, while at the same time finding the inherent lyricism in the music. 'The Hunt' is the fourth of the six quartets which Mozart dedicated to his guru Haydn, a man who had so completely mastered the art of the string quartet that even Mozart must have felt very much in his shadow. Indeed, Mozart famously struggled with the string quartet form, although you would never guess from the structural perfection of his 'Haydn' Quartets. Particularly impressive was the Adagio, given a special level of melodic magic by the Engegårds – this became a feature of a concert, in which an especially powerful reading of the slow movements lay at the heart of each piece.
It was appropriate from this Norway-based ensemble that their concert had a Scandinavian flavour, and next they turned their attention to Sibelius' Quartet 'Voces intimae', so called from a comment written in a friend's pocket score of the piece. Composed in 1908/9 between the third and fourth symphonies, this remarkable contribution to the string quartet genre has elements of both – the bucolic lyricism of the third and the enigmatic fragmentation of the fourth. More importantly, it is a work, which could only have been written by Sibelius, and we would struggle to find its antecedents and descendants in the work of other composers. Great sweeping melodies and iconic musical motifs place us in the wide-open spaces of the north, and even the Vivace, superficially reminiscent of Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream music, has dancing trolls rather than fairies. The wild fiddlers' Finale is also folk music passed through a uniquely sibelian prism. In the Engegård's performance the haunting Adagio was wonderfully offset by this frenzied and energetic music.
We have been fortunate in the Highlands to have had a couple of performances of Edvard Grieg's Quartet in recent years, but it is a work, which is generally far too seldom heard. The Engegård's performance synthesised in an utterly convincing manner the work's wilder Nordic tones with its curiously louche salon harmonies, while at the same time hinting at why the work is so rarely undertaken - it is technically extremely demanding! They have recorded both the Sibelius and the Grieg (as indeed the Mozart), and this was reflected in performances of both works, which were wonderfully thought-through but still thrillingly spontaneous and engaging. It is a work which ends with more frenzied troll-dancing - wonderful foot-stomping stuff!
A large and appreciative Music Nairn audience clearly shared my enjoyment of this concert, and the Engegård Quartet responded with a wonderfully enigmatic encore. When life gets too much for you as a Norwegian, you go to some forest-fringed lakeside and yoik it out – yoiking is a Sámi singing tradition, which to us sounds as wild as the howling of a wolf or of the wind over the tundra. The 'Yoik Suite', arranged for two violins by the Nordland composer Sigmund Lillebjerka from traditional Sámi material, and further adapted by the Engegårds to incorporate viola and cello, made a perfect encore, particularly on an evening when storm Dennis had whipped up a right old Nordic frenzy outside!