Arcanto Quartet, Wigmore Hall, London
Northern Sinfonia, The Sage, Gateshead

Four string soloists make their audience feel each quiver of joy and pain, while the ground shakes in Zehetmair's vivid Beethoven

A letter here, an anecdote there, a series of initials spelled out in the notes of the scale.

Vexed by the mystery of genius, we love to find biographical clues in music. The Arcanto Quartet's performance of Berg's Lyric Suite began with an autopsy, tracing each stage of the composer's affair with Hanna Fuchs, from secret beguilement to whispered confessions, consummation, separation and despair in a series of discrete musical examples. Guiding your audience through a labyrinth is one thing. Making them feel each quiver of joy and pain is another.

Founded in 2002, the Arcanto Quartet is composed of four soloists, its sound uniquely strong and sweet. The voices are distinct: first violinist Antje Weithaas's bird-like, sensitive soprano; second violinist Daniel Sepec's clear, direct mezzo; violist Tabea Zimmermann's heroic, androgynous alto; cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras's slender, poetic tenor. Cast as the characters in the domestic idyll of the Andante amoroso, with Zimmermann's Do-Do (Hanna's daughter) chasing the tail of her boisterous older brother and Weithaas's Hanna calming both children, individuality is an advantage.

You can listen to the Lyric Suite without investigating its structure. If the medium is atonal, the message is High Romantic, a dissolving of two into one. Though Berg quotes Tristan and Isolde in the rheumatic lament of the Largo desolato, there is no "and" in his Allegro misterioso: his initials (A B) and those of his lover (H F, or, in the German scale, B F) dart like fireflies, muddled and reordered.

For all the sweetness and boldness, this fragment of intimacy was, with the final quiet sigh from Zimmermann's viola, more moving than any swell or sob. Schubert's String Quartet in G (D887) felt too highly flavoured by comparison. Only fleetingly was there a sense of blissful dissolving, in the autumnal drone of the Andante. The jittery Scherzo prefigures troubles to come: a haunting, a dislocation, the stuff of Winterreise and Schwanengesang. No biographical examples were needed. Within two years, Schubert would be dead.

In Gateshead, he was still young, still hopeful. A faint Gothic mist curled around Northern Sinfonia's clarinets in the opening Adagio of Schubert's Third Symphony. Was this melancholy or fantasy? Violinist and conductor Thomas Zehetmair's lithe orchestra is ideally equipped for works that teeter on the precipice of Romanticism: open to the warmest legato and the sharpest sforzandi, watchful and alert, a period-modern stylistic hybrid with an alluringly transparent blend. Having a lovely acoustic to work in helps. Much like the Wigmore Hall, where Zehetmair's own quartet will perform D887 next month, Hall One at The Sage flatters without airbrushing.

Zehetmair's approach to Schubert's Third is infused with wonder. The young composer was still working at his father's school, still studying with Salieri, when he wrote this work, one of 200 composed in 1815. Mozart and Haydn provided the structural models, Beethoven the sharp-elbowed hemiolas that pepper the Minuet. That Gothic mist is quickly burnt away by sunshine, the final movement a scorching tarantella that anticipates Schubert's on-off fascination with Rossini. Only later would he choose to explore the twilight.

The Third Symphony was not performed in Schubert's lifetime. Neither was his fourth, with its ill-deserved soubriquet, the Tragic Symphony. This is a fan letter to Beethoven's fifth, adopting the same interrogative play of minor to major, dark to light, the same key. Zehetmair cuts an intimidating, austere figure on the podium. Yet his string players seemingly thrive on details of bowing that only a fellow string-player would demand. The details are dazzling, violas and second violins giddy in the teeth-chattering quavers of the last Allegro, the intelligence and wit of the cello section captivating throughout.

So, from a fan letter to the most enigmatic four-note motif in the canon. In Zehetmair's reading of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, the famous opening was less a statement than a whiplash double-take. Northern Sinfonia's fight-or-flight performance was notable not just for the specificity of phrasing – instead of allotting short bows to one subject, long bows to another, their bowing develops in parallel with the musical development – but for the breadth of space in oboist Michael O'Donnell's solo cadence. Bees hummed in the Andante, the ground shook in the transition to the closing movement, its great affirmation underpinned by a handsome contrabassoon. Intensely familiar and shockingly new, this was more vivid and enthralling than the Leipzig Gewandhaus's recent Beethoven. A triumph.

Next Week

Anna Picard encounters a Winterreise involving a puppet

Classical Choice

Ex Cathedra sing Christmas music by candlelight at St Mary's, Warwick (Tue), St John's, Hagley (Wed), St John's, Smith Square, London (Fri), and St James, Chipping Campden (Sat). The EU Baroque Orchestra brings A Breath of Enlightenment to Spitalfields Winter Festival with Locatelli's Christmas Concerto in London's Shoreditch Church (Sat).

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders