Signifying their subversive intent with a lower-case title, quartet-lab aim to revolutionise the quartet repertoire. They are led by the charismatic Pekka Kuusisto, whose credentials as a jazz and folk violinist are as impressive as those for his classical work. Maverick Dutch cellist Pieter Wispelwey has long pioneered unusual arrangements, and with Kuusisto’s Finnish compatriot Lilli Maijala as violist, and with the Moldovan violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja - who inherited a wider musical perspective from her cimbalom-playing father – these are all seasoned innovators.
Their Wigmore debut was non-standard from the start, as Kuusisto - backed by Wispelwey looking quizzical, Kopatchinskaja intense in a green ball-dress, and Maijala got up like a peasant from a Diaghilev ballet - announced that they’d intersperse the main works of the programme with others they’d just decided on. But first they played Mozart’s ever-popular “Divertimento in D K136”, written when he was sixteen, and still in debate as to whether he intended it for a quartet or a small orchestra. The way quartet-lab attacked it made it sound like an orchestra anyway, so full-blooded was their sound; intermittent rough edges were a small trade-off for the general gutsy swing.
Then Kuusisto and Kopatchinskaja delivered three of Bartok’s “Duos for 2 violins” – the first sounding like interlaced female voices, the second like bagpipes, and the third in crazy pizzicato – after which viola and cello joined them for a hushed arrangement of Byrd’s “Sanctus”, for which they bleached their tone to imitate viols.
Seguing straight from that into Beethoven’s terse and mysterious “Serioso” quartet was a coup de theatre, and for the first movement their sound had all the muddy savagery which could be desired. If they short-changed us on the beauty of the majestic Allegretto melody, they made up for it with a ferocious finale, complete with clouds of flying bow-hair.
The second half was just as riveting, starting with two more Bartok duos (this time with viola and violin, creating a new texture) followed by the lament from Britten’s “Cello Suite”, before seguing – as though it was the most natural thing in the world – into a performance of that composer’s “String Quartet No 2”, where their combined virtuosity took the breath away.
For an encore they hoicked a young violist out of the audience to play the monotone solo part in Purcell’s slitheringly plangent “Fantasia upon one note”, as Britten himself had once done. An evening and a half.