AN INSPIRED PROGRAMME FROM THE SZYMANOWSKI QUARTET
Szymanowski Quartet (Andrej Bielow, Grzegorz Kotow, violins; Vladamir Mykytka, viola, Marcin Sieniawski, cello); Works by Waclaw of Szamotuly, Haydn, Szymanowski, and Dvorak, Playhouse, January 19, 2014.
We are used to wonderful performances from this Polish ensemble named after the famed composer Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937). They have a beautiful warm, burnished sound, and each of the four musicians bring such expression and character to what they play. Delightful to watch as well as hear! As they have become more established, they are perhaps more considered and less impassioned than before, but they now produce richer, more exact, and even more probing interpretations which are just as exciting. Here they gave us an intriguing menu of works we seldom hear ranging from 16th to the 20th Century.
The opening Four Chorales by Polish poet and musician Waclaw of Szamotuly (1520-1560) was really quite a treat. Few of his works survive, and this collection gave us both music of substance and charm. The Szymanowski Quartet brought out the work’s Baroque character and feeling with precision and commitment, leaving no doubt as to the composer’s mastery of imitative techniques.
We next moved to a Haydn quartet that we have likely never heard in concert, his Op. 33, No. 1. In Haydn’s development, this innovative quartet introduces much more interaction between all four players, and you could really hear that here. Every detail, nuance and interplay between the instruments was exposed. This was remarkably patient, characterful playing that built with excitement to the scintillating presto finale.
It is a long jump to Karol Szymanowski’s String Quartet No. 2 (1927), but of course this is exactly where the ensemble excels. Compared to the composer’s orchestral music, his dramatic oratorio King Roger, and perhaps his piano music, his chamber music still languishes in relative obscurity. This quartet is a relatively short work but an innovative one, and a pleasure to hear. It essentially sets Polish folk tunes within an exotic, impressionist tapestry, having both the attack and feel of Bartok and the serene, shimmering wonder of, say, Debussy. I cannot visualize a better performance: the control of the impressionistic textures was masterly and the attack was superb. The work flowed seamlessly from beginning to end.
The last work returned us to more familiar terrain: Dvorak’s String Quartet, Op. 106, possibly the composer’s greatest achievement in the genre. This is a long and difficult work, and it can easily appear repetitious and disjointed in lesser hands. The Emerson’s gave a very fine performance for us a few years back; integrated, smooth and powerful. Here the Szymanowski Quartet were certainly less smooth, often contrasting the energy and drive in the work with a quiet, more reposeful sensitivity where its poetry speaks. In many ways, this was a deliberate and thoughtful rendering, less prone to be excited by Dvorak’s motion but infinitely aware of all the little nuances of phrase and dynamics that produce its emotional meaning. Except perhaps in parts of the first movement, where the focus on quiet detail slightly blocked momentum, this was a revealing experience. The lovely Adagio achieved tremendous inner detail and its full emotional depth, the bouncing rhythms of the scherzo were perfectly combined with its beguiling trio, and the complex finale was outstanding, wonderfully weaving together all its varied motifs and successfully probing all its complexities of phrase and dynamics to bring the work to an inspired close.
It would be difficult to find a chamber music concert of greater interest, variety and accomplishment!
© Geoffrey Newman 2014