It is often said that a string quartet is like a family. This is true on so many levels. You have the ‘members of the stringed instrument ‘family’ (2 violins, one viola and a cello) all working together as a true microcosm of a community. And like families, the members of a dedicated string quartet spend a lot of time together. It is perhaps inevitable that bonds are forged not only during rehearsal and performance, but outside of this space as well.

The Kelemen quartet began from such ties. Two childhood sweethearts, joined by the girl’s sister, and then by the pupil of the first two during his formative years. What is quite extraordinary about this ensemble is how easily, apart from the cellist who remains faithful to her instrument, the others switch roles all the time. I am unable to think of another quartet that does this so much. It is not uncommon for the violins to switch between first and second parts in a quartet. But in the Kelemen ensemble, the three ‘upper strings’ alternate between the parts of first, second violin and viola in a true example of democracy in music.

The other remarkable feature of the Kelemen ensemble is the degree of eye contact and complete ease and sense of ‘relaxedness’ that all of them display. It epitomises what is at the core of chamber playing, an intimate conversation where each protagonist is being really listened to and responded to by the others.

The works on the programme were well-chosen, and complemented each other. “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” (Serenade No. 13 for strings in G major K. 525) is perhaps one of Mozart’s most popular compositions, ‘earworm’ing ts way into our consciousness through concert performances, films, TV advertisements, cellphone ringtones, etc. The second movement provides the background music to the yacht scene in the 1979 tearjerker film “The Champ” starring Jon Voight and Faye Dunaway as the estranged couple, and little Ricky Schroeder as their lovechild.

The Kelemen ensemble played this with verve from start to finish, and the use of rubato, and of embellishments and ornamentation at strategic places added to the charm and elegance of this delightful composition. It is the sort of thing that performers must also have done in Mozart’s day, (especially so in the case of serenades, divertimenti and cassations) rather than adhering to the score, as purists today are inclined to expect. You think you know a work because you’ve heard it so often, but every interpretation by master players such as these brings out ‘new’ nuances, of light and shade, of colour and contrast.

Speaking of light and shade, Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” (String Quartet no. 14 in D minor, D. 810) provided the darker, weightier counterpoint to the programme. Here the tension and stress of the piece was evident from the unison explosive opening descending figure, and had us on the edge of our seats. This is the gem in Schubert’s string quartet oeuvre. The Kelemen ensemble was able to convey the alarm, the fear and the terror behind the work through their eloquent control of their collective sound. The organ-like swells and ebbs in their sound seemed to fuse them into one organic living, breathing being, resonating to the rafters of the Santa Cruz church. ‘All for One, and One for All.’

For the encore, we were treated to three movements [Vivace- Róka-tánc (Fox Dance); Allegretto moderato- Marosszéki keringös; and Presto- Csürdöngölö] from Divertimento no. 1 by Hungarian composer Leo Weiner (1885-1960), based on genuine old Hungarian folk tunes. Weiner studied and taught at the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music Budapest, to which all the Kelemen players have a bond as well, as students and/or faculty.

The Róka-tánc is full of Hungarian rhythmic vigour and characteristic harmonies. The Marosszéki keringös is supposedly a waltz from the Marosszék region, but it is has such a lop-sided, hiccupping lilt that it seems Weiner is having a laugh up his sleeve at the listener. This is an ‘inside’ joke that perhaps only Hungarians might fully grasp. The Csürdöngölö was traditionally danced by villagers as they stamped down the earth for a new house or barn, and this one has a joyful, rustic tune of carefree abandon from the first violin, to the accompaniment of the rest of the quartet sometimes on open strings in fifths, punctuated by accordion-like repeated emphatic ‘foot-stomping’ chords so typical of Hungarian folk music. A wonderful display of virtuosity and passion, qualities that the Kelemen quartet has in spades, and which were abundantly evident through this marvellous, memorable evening.

(An edited version of this article was published in the Navhind Times Goa India on 29 January 2014)