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Picture: Lincoln Baker/The West Australian

From a distance, it looks rather like a shipping container. Close-up, the exterior of Quartetthaus is seen to be made up of big rectangles of pale wood.

We line up at one of its two entrances. Only moments before starting time, we are admitted into a narrow space, a black curtain to the left, a wall to the right. On the latter is a row of pegs on which, bizarrely - bearing in mind the weather - are three furled black umbrellas. It is oppressively claustrophobic, the pegs vividly calling to my mind the anteroom of a nazi gas chamber, an impression reinforced by a massive white hosepipe fixed to the exterior wall adjacent to the entry.

We wait, standing, in the gloom. Then the curtain is drawn back a little and we move into a small, circular room with two rows of chairs (52 in all) with canvas seats and backs. Below each chair is a low-wattage electric light bulb. It is a very dim interior.

The ceiling, consisting of movable panels, is unusually low. It, too, makes for a depressing, boxed-in atmosphere. Four young musicians enter and take their places on a small circular stage. They sit on little round seats that call to mind those at milk bars popular in the 1940s.

They begin to play. At once - I am sitting in the second row, against the wall - I realise I am far too close to the action. It's like sitting in the second row at a cinema, so close it is difficult to gain a meaningful perspective on events.

The rasp of bow on string grates on the ear, an effect very largely due to proximity to the players. As well, the air-conditioning machinery causes an unwanted, low level but audible hum.

One is left with the distinct impression that at Quartetthaus, the container is far more important than its contents - the music.

The musicians are not identified in the program. Why the anonymity? It is unclear if they are from the Australian National Academy of Music or elsewhere. The program is mute on this point.

There are no program notes. Why? Britten's Quartet No. 2 is hardly standard repertoire so it is fair to say at least some of those in the audience might not be familiar with the work. This year is the centenary of Britten's birth. This was a lost opportunity to provide a helpful note on his vast contribution to 20th century music.

Yet again, one senses the music is of secondary importance. It is curious and unsettling.

Another four musicians enter and we listen to Haydn's Quartet in C from opus 20. Throughout the performance, the circular platform revolves VERY slowly.

As soon as I return home, I listen to a favourite string quartet CD. I savour its every moment.

One is left

with the distinct impression that at Quartetthaus, the container is far more important than its contents.