A Young Quartet with Great Potential

Szymanowski Quartet, Works by Haydn, Bach, Mendelssohn and Szymanowski, Vancouver Playhouse, November 3, 2009

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The third concert of the Friends of Chamber Music season featured the return of the Szymanowski Quartet.  Named after the pioneering Polish composer of the early 20th Century, this young ensemble (founded in Warsaw in 1995) extended the good impressions made last year.  There, it was the sensitivity and musicality of the quartet’s phrasing (especially in the Ravel Quartet) that was distinctive.  The current concert showed them to be an even more complete and mature quartet, combining a wonderful tonal blend with unerring musical judgment.

The program opened with the most famous of Haydn’s last quartets, the ‘Emperor’, the slow movement of which contains the same melody as the German National Anthem.  This movement was most beautifully played: noble, tender, with genuine repose.  In contrast, the equally-famous first movement was given a very rustic and rhythmically alert treatment, full of momentum and achieving considerable structural unity.  This treatment was ‘genuine’ Haydn; I felt a strong link to the symphonic momentum of say, Symphony No.88 as well the abandon of many of his gypsy rondos in a way I had not previously encountered.  Overall, this performance had great concentration and flowed from beginning to end.

It is a considerable jump to Szymanowski’s String Quartet No. 2 (1927), and it is a testimony to the ensemble that they can play both classical and modern works so idiomatically.  While Szymanowski’s symphonies (2 and 3) and choral works (notably Stabat Mater and King Roger) are well-known, his string quartets seldom receive public performance.  The second quartet is a later, experimental work, combining some of the lush, almost exotic lyricism of his earlier symphonies with a terse, fragmented distillation of Polish mountain folk tunes. The latter has much the same feel as Bartok’s treatment of Hungarian folk tunes.  While it is not clear how important Szymanowski’s chamber music ultimately is, the artists produced a most refreshing experience for us.

From there to a selection from Bach’s Art of the Fugue, a tasteful and subtle interlude, to the final work: Mendelssohn’s Quartet in D major, Op. 44, No.1.  Judging by the Violin Concerto, the Italian Symphony and the Octet, it might be concluded that Mendelssohn could produce flowing romantic melodies and tight dramatic structures with almost a child-like ease.  His quartets belie this: these are works that are often over-written, displaying an urgent desire for expression without actually achieving such.  I think the Szymanowski quartet brought greater stature to the D major Quartet than I had been previously aware.  Their secret is that they never pushed the music.  This allowed the quartet to find moments of genuine repose and to pull out the beauty of individual phrases in a revealing way.   The dynamic and tonal control shown here was quite remarkable; the work emerged with wider emotional range and depth.

Overall, this was a wonderful concert; interesting in content and uplifting in performance. This is a refreshingly individual quartet, distinguished by sensitivity and feeling, wonderful phrasing, and sheer musical intelligence.  It cannot be long before the group receives full international acclaim. Special mention must be made of their leader, Andrey Bielow, for instilling these types of values into their music–making.   The quartet has recorded for the Avie label (2006) and has recently formed its own label, Cavi-music. 

© Geoffrey Newman 2009