Imagine a small island where, for an entire week, you’re in the company of some of the world’s finest classical musicians. They play almost continuously from 9.30am until bedtime. You’re one of more than 13,500 audience members. Oh, and one crucial detail: everything you hear is a string quartet.

Maybe it sounds like paradise? Or alternatively the setting for a dystopian arthouse film – a Lord of the Flies adaptation, perhaps, with classical music fanatics rather than schoolboys? Either way, imagine no more: this place is real. Minutes from the rail mega-interchange of Amsterdam Centraal, the glass-walled, ultra-modern Muziekgebouw sits at one end of an artificial dock in the city’s busy harbour. There’s water on three sides of the building and the only way in or out is by one of the sleek metal bridges. This is the home of the String Quartet Biennale Amsterdam, the world’s biggest string quartet festival.

How big is that, you ask? It’s true that the competition isn’t fierce: the major quartet festivals in Banff and Heidelberg, for instance, are only three days long. The Paris String Quartet Biennial lasts a marathon nine but it rarely involves more than two concerts a day. (Lightweights, I hear you scoff. That’s the spirit.) SQBA means business. From early Haydn first thing every morning to late Beethoven at 10.30pm most nights, there are five concerts daily for eight days, plus free talks, masterclasses and informal “warmup act” performances in the foyer by student quartets from the Amsterdam conservatoire. This year’s programme – subtitled “The Power of Four” – featured 25 professional quartets from all over the world. Big names (the Danish String Quartet, the Belceas, the Dorics and the Jerusalems were all there, among others) mingled with rising stars fresh from competition wins. The closing concert featured two on stage simultaneously for Enescu’s Octet Op 7. (“What’s better than one string quartet? Two string quartets!” quipped one musician to the audience’s delight.)

The power of four … Doric Quartet at String Quartet Biennale Amsterdam. Photograph: Eduardus Lee

There’s more. For much of the day, a nattily dressed Dutch LP collector called Jean Paul features as an in-house DJ with the volume turned up to “public” from his cosy, Persian-rugged nook on an upper level. “Unlike the festival, where they dare also to add quintets on the programme,” he jokes, “I don’t. I’m very fanatic, very stubborn: string quartets only for the festival.” He’s been collecting vinyl for 30 years and now has more than 4,000 LPs. Strings are his thing: he has no brass, “hardly any” orchestral music, no opera. “But then I know people with 30,000 records. That’s insane! I’m very picky, actually.”

Like-minded purists could seize the opportunity to guzzle all six Bartók quartets in a single afternoon. The other usual string-quartet suspects get plenty of airtime, too: there’s Schubert and Mendelssohn, Haydn and Britten, Beethoven, Beethoven and more Beethoven. But there were also collaborations galore and new music on tap. Early morning Haydn came paired with grittier wake-ups from Wolfgang Rihm and Thomas Larcher, like a musical Wim Hof method. And I learned that in the Netherlands standing ovations come as standard but can, on occasion, be tepid. There were highlights: gloriously unbuttoned Mendelssohn from the Tetzlaff Quartet and the Australian String Quartet’s world premiere of Nyilamum by Paul Stanhope with Indigenous Australian singer Lou Bennett (compelling and atmospheric across an absolute language barrier). Not to mention an unexpectedly moving performance by two young quartets with a choir of visually impaired amateur singers.

After a mere 48 hours of intensive quartet-ing, I felt for the man who wandered past me glassy-eyed one morning, desperately murmuring “coffee …”. No wonder there were jars of free biscuits on each of the bars. Sometimes even the power of four needs a bit of a boost.

Meanwhile, the non-string-quartet-centred world seemed to be receding. By the time I ventured outside beyond the confines of the Muziekgebouw briefly between concerts and was passed by a husky towing a man on a skateboard, I began to wonder whether you can have too much of a good thing.

Almost 40 concerts in a single week is a lot, after all. So much, in fact, that several works were played more than once. For one Dutch attender I speak to, that’s part of the appeal: “I compare Haydn performances with the wine,” he explains. “We have the young quartets who play it like the grüner veltliner, but then the Australian String Quartet who play it as a full bordeaux.” Had he been to everything? “Oh yes!” I didn’t like to point out that a week-long bout of morning-till-night wine tasting sounded a bit extreme. But he confided: “A lot of people ask, can you consume so much? And I don’t know – but it’s a special atmosphere if you listen to it all.”

‘It’s a special atmosphere’ … String Quartet Biennale Amsterdam at Muziekgebouw. Photograph: Eduardus Lee

The biennale’s founder and director Yasmin Hilberdink is keen to stress something similar. In the run-up to the very first SQBA in 2018, she tells me, she took stock of the programme and found she’d ended up with exactly 100 works on the bill (this year I counted 113 across the “official” concerts). “It was a coincidence and I was like, ‘I have no idea how this will feel.’ And it worked out really well because … the more you do it, the more you go deep.”

Hilberdink had been running concerts at Amsterdam’s prestigious Concertgebouw for a chamber music society but had noticed both that subscription numbers were dropping and that quartet players themselves were dissatisfied. “The fun of it, the joy of it, the spontaneity of it – they were missing this in their careers. And they were saying: ‘We don’t know whether we can exist in 10 years, whether anyone is coming to listen to us.’ And I said I love it so much and I’m not 95, so there must be other people out there who love this …”

Four biennales in, Hilberdink seems to have found those people. But she’s also cultivated a unique environment for the quartets themselves. “It feels like quartet Disney World,” gushes one. Several others suggest variations on a theme of “therapy for string quartets”. The two violinists in the young, Brussels-based Karski Quartet are beaming when I chat to them. “The atmosphere we found today has been so inspiring,” one enthuses, “and something we really want to take and keep ‘out there’.” She looks out across the harbour. “It can be a harsh world sometimes, the classical music business.”

So why not make this annual? “You cannot do this every year,” Hilberdink says firmly. “It’s just too much.” Right.

Details of this year’s festival (which ended 3 February) are here. The next SQBA will be 24-31 January 2026.


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