It’s not often that one gets to hear two different string ensembles on the same program. Last year the idea of having a so-called “Battle of the Bands” at the Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival was so successful that the same two string quartets, the Linden and Attacca Quartets, were invited back to the Performing Arts Center in Highlands to play a different program but in the same format. The Linden played Beethoven’s String Quartet in C minor, Op. 18, No. 4 and the Attacca countered with Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in A minor, Op. 13; after intermission, the two joined forces for Randall Thompson’s “Alleluia” in an arrangement by Lucas Drew, and the Niels Gade Octet for Strings in F, Op. 17. Far from being in competition with one another, these young players genuinely seem to like one another and certainly make beautiful music together as an octet. This concert was underwritten, in part, by Ruth Gershon and Sandy Cohn.

The Linden String Quartet members are Sarah McElravy and Catherine Cosbey, violins; Eric Wong, viola; and Felix Umansky, cello. For 2011-12 they hold the Ernst Steifel Quartet in Residence position for the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts in Katonah, NY. The Quartet is also the Canton Symphony Orchestra’s Quartet-in-Residence, a program established to promote the arts of Classical music and quartet playing through a series of presentations in various elementary schools in the Northeastern Ohio area. They were the gold medalist and grand prize-winner of the 2009 Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition, winner of the 2010 Concert Artists Guild Victor Elmaleh Competition, and laureates of the 9th Borciani International String Quartet Competition. They have received the prestigious 2011 A.N. and Pearl G. Barnett Fellowship (including a $25,000 award).

Formed at The Juilliard School in 2003, the members of the Attacca Quartet are Amy Schroeder and Keiko Tokunaga, violins; Luke Fleming, viola; and Andrew Yee, cello. They made their professional debut in 2007 as part of the Artists International Winners Series in Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall, and were Winners of the Alice Coleman Grand Prize at the 60th annual Coleman Chamber Ensemble Competition in 2006. In 2011 they won the 7th Osaka International Chamber Music Competition. They have recorded the complete string quartet works of John Adams for Azica Records, which will be released in January 2013. In 2010 they launched “The 68,” a project to perform all sixty-eight Haydn string quartets on a special series they created in New York. They are active internationally as performing artists and mentors to young players.

The program opened with the Beethoven, the last of the set of 6 quartets he composed in this opus. Although a relatively early work, Op. 18 No. 4 is a piece that opens dramatically, even explosively, with sudden changes of mood that seem to turn on a dime. Already Beethoven has distanced himself from existing models in an unmistakable presage of romantic stylings — impatience with formal limits, impassioned utterance, and an expanded emotional scope. The Linden played this first movement Allegro, ma non tanto with plenty of muscle and intensity coupled with big physical gestures. The second movement, a Scherzo, began with a nice little fugue which was lightly played and beautifully voiced. The third movement Menuetto: Allegretto, again in C minor with a trio in the major key, ended energetically with a faster execution of the opening Menuetto. The final movement, in an arch rondo form with the A section returning in several varied forms, featured a gypsy-like tune deftly handled in the first violin. The quartet’s gutsy and humorous performance earned them a warm round of applause.

The Attacca took the stage next for Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 13. Despite its higher opus number and label as “No. 2,” this was the composer’s first string quartet. It is based on his own love song (“Frage,” Op. 9/1) which appears as a theme in both outer movements and as shorter motives in the other two. Mendelssohn’s cyclical procedure extends in the finale to a literal quote of the preceding movements (much as Beethoven jogs our memory in the opening of the finale of Symphony No. 9). The pithy question posed in Mendelssohn’s song — “Ist es war?” (Is it true?) — is not unlike one of Beethoven’s queries — “Muss es sein?” (Must it be?) — positioned in the last movement of Beethoven’s last quartet, Op. 136. Mendelssohn’s understanding of musical rhetoric is amazingly sophisticated, especially when one considers he was only 18 when he wrote this first quartet. And, this music is like Beethoven’s in its intensity, its heavy use of counterpoint, and even choice of key like in Beethoven’s Op. 132 (as fortune would have it, performed last Monday at HCCMF by the Linden Quartet). The Attaccas gave this piece an elegant and intelligent performance with their keen sense of style evident in each movement.

After intermission the two ensembles joined forces (the Attacca holding the lead parts) for only the second performance ever of the serene Randall Thompson “Alleluia,” a staple in the choral canon and arranged here for strings by Lucas Drew, founder of the Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival. The piece is an instrumental stunner — quiet and deeply moving — and served here as an elegy for Natalie McMasters, a long-time friend of the Festival who recently passed away.

Lastly came the Niels Gade (1817-1890) Octet for Strings in F, Op. 17. A Danish composer, Gade composed this four-movement work in 1848, modeling it after Mendelssohn’s famous Octet and infusing it with some distinctive “Nordic” color, especially in its charming third movement. Mendelssohn was instrumental to Gade’s success, engaging him as assistant conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra and as a teacher at the Leipzig Conservatory. The writing throughout the work is in sunny terrain with all the familiar landmarks of classical formal style. It embodies a judicious mix of both fullness and transparency so that all the parts can be easily followed. The duets between the first violin and viola, then cello in the second movement were especially beautiful. By the final movement all the players were caught up in its full-blown lyricism, some of it delivered in dramatic unison passages. Kudos especially go to first violinist Amy Schroeder for her exemplary playing of this most difficult part.